The great documentarian and filmmaker Werner Herzog has no shame in revealing an agenda. But he does not push it or sentimentalize it. His successes date back to the early seventies, and the best of them reveal a profound understanding of humanity. These include features from Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) to Rescue Dawn (2006) and documentaries from “The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner” (1974) to Encounters at the End of the World (2007). That is only counting the films of which I am familiar with, including many in between, so if there are “genius” ones prior or since, I have only omitted them because I have not seen them. The point being, more often than not, Herzog probes deeper into the mysteries of humanity than most other artists, or men for that matter, ever dare.
Add Into the Abyss to Herzog’s rich filmography. Now he heads to Texas to interview a pair of inmates convicted of murder, one destined to die (Michael Perry), the other incarcerated for life (Jason Burkett). Both were found guilty in the same 2001 triple homicide that took the lives of Sandra Stotler, 50, her 16-year-old son, Adam, and his friend, 18-year-old Jeremy Richardson. Through the fates of these two men, Herzog offers something further reaching than a statement on the death penalty. He presents a community where circumstances offer very little hope to those struggling to get by, the shattered lives of surviving family members and the effects of execution on all participants involved.
Herzog opens Into the Abyss with a reverend who has spent a life-changing amount of time with men put to death by lethal injection in the State of Texas. During his interview, Reverend Richard Lopez says, “I believe God is good and caring.” He says this near the cemetery where the unclaimed condemned are buried, plain crosses with only dates and numbers denoting the grave sites. Though Lopez offers the classic Christian’s reassurance for death: “it’s God’s will,” he seems shaken up recalling a moment he almost ran over a squirrel with his golf cart. “Life is precious whether it’s a squirrel or a human being,” he says before tearing up. “For someone on the gurney, I cannot stop the process for them. I wish I could.”
It’s a a set up resonating with complexity and seems to reinforce Herzog’s own philosophy as a man who has freely admitted to his atheism yet is deeply attuned to the encounter of death by the living. In his haunting 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, which dealt with the mauling death of an animal lover who enjoyed camping near grizzly bears, Herzog says, “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” The phrase can apply to the situations presented in Into the Abyss, be it the contrasting fates of the convicts to the reverend’s tearful reaction in regards to execution.
The prologue with the reverend offers a brilliant set up before the title card appears: “Into the Abyss. A tale of life, a tale of death,” hovering over handheld camera footage of the cell an inmate will wait in before execution. The words hover between a table with bibles and a holding cell a few feet across from the lethal injection room. On the soundtrack, some sparse, bluesy music by Mark Degli Antoni (formerly of Soul Coughing) drones, accentuating the tragedy of not only the presence of execution in society but also the murder scene.
Early in the documentary, Herzog intercuts actual footage from the bloody crime scene documented on video by police as evidence, while Police Lt. Damon Hall walks him through the night of the murders, driving him to the house where the elder Stotler was shot dead to the lake where her body was dumped and the wooded area where the two young men where also shot dead, all over a pair of vehicles. The slow-paced editing of that police footage, set to Antoni’s dreary music makes it all feel very Herzogian and tragic for those involved, with enough space for meditation by the viewer. Herzog is no manipulator, but an observer who wants to share what he sees, fostering room for insight by the audience.
However, Herzog does not hold back. In an interview eight days prior to his execution, the director tells Perry he does not like him but respects him as a human being: “You are a human being, and I do not think human beings should be executed.” But then, that is also just before the film spends time at the bloody crime scene Perry has been convicted of having a hand in. Police were lead to the killers because witnesses came forward saying the young men had boasted about the murders.
Herzog pulls out mesmerizing stories from his subjects during the interviews, makes insightful observations about the aftermath of the deaths and never sensationalizes. It turns out Burkett’s father is also serving time in prison, and he is filled with regret. In a section of the film entitled “Time and Emptiness,” Delbert Burkett casually notes that is son will be eligible for parole in 1941 instead of 2041 several times before Herzog corrects him. The loss of time is part of the sentence that also affects the victim’s surviving family members. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, who lost her brother and mother to the killers, talks about trying to live again and how she “basically shut down” for months after the deaths. Time seems to stand still for those involved while life continues through some new window that has opened up to an alternate reality they are no longer part of.
Many revelations come to light during the course of Into the Abyss, as Herzog brings out reason for contemplation with deliberate pacing and choice statements from those he interviews. In a tidy bookend complementing the reverend’s interview, Herzog closes the documentary with retired Police Captain Fred Allen. Allen admits to participating in over 120 executions, though he does not have an exact number; sometimes as many as “two a week.” He retired after the execution of Karla Faye Tucker in 1998. She was the first woman executed in Texas since 1863. Allen surprised himself by his breaking down in tears after strapping the woman down for her execution, and he describes having flashbacks to all the inmates he executed during this tearful breakdown. “This was not your self, but your real self,” Herzog tells him, and Allen affirms that was the exact feeling he got from it. “No one has a right to take another life,” the former police captain says.
Distributor IFC Films provided a screener for the purposes of this review. Into the Abyss is rated PG-13 and opened in select theaters nationwide yesterday and is currently screening at the Regal South Beach 18 in Miami Beach. It will also begin a screening run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Dec. 30.