Watched Apr 25, 2012
When it comes to documentaries Herzog can do no wrong in my eyes, his philosophical nature, articulate mind and soothing voice lend themselves perfectly to the production of high quality work from Little Dieter Needs to Fly to Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog’s Into the Abyss, an unflinching look at a Death Row, illustrated using the story of two young men convicted of a triple murder, is no exception.
Kicking off with an interview with the Death Row chaplain whose emotional account of his work during the inmates final minutes and philosphy on the value of all life had me moved to tears within the first five minutes. We instantly know that we are in safe hands.
Great respect is shown to the victims families with Herzog giving them the time and space to express their feelings and opinions. Herzog’s own views on capital punishment (no doubt shared by the majority of his audience) are made clear from the outset, but one cannot fail to be moved by Lisa Stotler-Balloun and Chris Richardson as they describe the effect from the loss of their loved ones, on their lives.
Herzog uses the story of these murders to paint a full picture of Death Row and its effect on all the lives it touches. He doesn’t just focus on the perpetrators, the victims and their families. We also hear testimony from others, like the Sheriff in charge of the original investigation, the aforementioned Chaplain and the “Captain of the Death House” whose chilling title embodies the dreadful work he carries out. Indeed, Herzog sees something more of interest in the eyes of the Captain and gently encourages him to describe how the work has taken its toll.
This is the beauty of Herzog, one gets the feeling that he doesn’t go into an interview with an agenda. He lets his interviewees speak for themselves and is always happy for them to go off topic. To him everything has validity, everything is gold and worthy of inclusion. Perhaps one inclusion seems a little at odds with the rest of the movie, and that is the interview with the new wife of Jason Burkett, one of the convicted men. One can see why Herzog felt compelled to add the interview, she’s a fascinating character, blind to the possibility that she may be what Herzog terms a “Death Row Groupie”; she just doesn’t quite fit in with the solemn tone of the movie.
A recurring motif in Herzog’s work is the quiet moment in between the interviews that let you breath and contemplate what you have witnessed. Herzog chooses flocks of birds and his favoured shot of roadsides from a moving vehicle, which although not essential to the main theme, some how lend a profound sense of melancholy and an existential tone, particularly when combined with the abstract music of the soundtrack.
We as an audience may have firm opinions on capital punishment and although Herzog may not change them completely we are guaranteed a real swing of emotions. One minute sadness for the men who are quietly and calmly murdered by the state, the next complete and utter empathy for the victims, their families and horror at the crimes comitted. It’s a rollercoaster ride and a quagmire of conflicting sympathies, as it should be. Yet, there is no doubt that the final shots of the nameless, numbered graves of the executed, standing in rows like a hideous inversion of the graves of the war dead, will leave the viewer with a haunting image.