Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, his latest documentary which explores capital punishment in Texas, picked up The Grierson Award for Best Documentary after its recent screening at this year’s London Film Festival.
To me it sounded like a film Errol Morris would have made, a topic he would have chosen to explore, so when I arrived at the Vue in Leicester Square I had to remind myself again that this was Herzog. It would be a European take, an outsider’s view on this well-trodden subject.
To our disappointment Herzog couldn’t attend the festival screening but in the message read on his behalf he told the audience that ‘this is the most intense film I have ever made’, that it drove him back to smoking cigarettes and that he and his editor could only work 5 hours a day, not their usual 8, when cutting the film.
Herzog’s way into the topic is through a 10 year–old triple homicide case in rural Texas, the outcome of a bungled attempt to steal a Camaro sports car. Visually he builds the film around landscapes and interviews – interviews with the two men convicted of the murder (only one is on death row), one victim’s daughter, another victim’s brother, and the family of one of the men in prison.
Herzog is in control (as always, interesting framing of his subjects) but the film is not always easy to follow. There is a slightly confusing reconstruction of the murder, and two interviews in the film whose connection to the story was not made clear. I elbowed my friend: Wait, who was that guy?
Sometimes the interviews feel long and include too many extraneous details that highlight the American bizarre at the expense of keeping the focus on the barbaric. The resulting effect is that the interviewees sometimes felt like caricatures. Like Errol Morris, my friend said, Herzog gives them just enough rope to hang themselves.
Another resulting and surprising effect was that several times during the film I had an instinct to defend America – not all of us have so many problems, to which my friend replied, but you are such easy targets.
Would Americans see this film differently? Will it seem too familiar – the mentality, the problems – unbearably so?
From the bizarre Into The Abyss occasionally swung to the boring.
But worth it, if only to hear the testimony of a man who during his tenure as the Captain of ‘Death House Team’ tied 125 people down onto the stretcher. Only after he assisted the execution of the first female in Texas – Karla Faye Tucker, who incidentally was also on death row after a car robbery went wrong – did the Captain have a breakdown and quit his job despite losing his pension. It was moving and reassuring to hear such an about-face.
Typically you hear Herzog’s voice asking his questions throughout the film. It lends an authenticity that develops the audience’s trust and gives us something more, those moments of expression when the interviewee considers his question, collects their thoughts. But what’s not explicit and what I missed, was Herzog’s motivation to investigate the consequences of this particular murder, this constellation of victims. Although not in the film, Herzog talks here about what captivated him – the senselessness. But isn’t it always?
The day after the film I still saw the faces of the two men in prison. The one who smiled most and talked about a supportive family (but a family you never saw) was about to die. The other had his sentence commuted to life in prison after his father (also incarcerated) admitted to being a poor parent and pleaded for his son’s life. He was now expecting a baby. Senseless, yes. Arbitrary too.
Into The Abyss left me craving a film that explored why teenagers shoot and kill when their efforts to steal cars are thwarted. Why young adult men are just learning to read. Why sons are in the same jail as their fathers. Why men in rural Texas turn guns on themselves and die of heroin overdoses. Why capital punishment exists and why it’s a spectator sport.
Even after Herzog’s exploration, the list of whys is still endless.