Screening Log #41: Into the Abyss (2011)

Written and Directed by Werner Herzog






Capital punishment is something that I have never quite seen the point of. Beyond the moral and ethical reasons as to why it doesn’t make sense, the purported effects of it, whether they be financial (cutting the cost of funding a life sentence for a prisoner), judicial (deterring others from committing crimes on the threat of death), or merely Biblical (in that barbarous eye-for-an-eye sense), don’t seem to pan out in actuality. If anything, I would think – and have no stats to verify this with – that once death is in play for an individual, it grants them carte blanche, i.e., “I’m going to get the chair so I may as well….” There is an obvious sense of hypocrisy in condemning someone to die for murder, a lowering of the state to the level of an individual, to the committing an identically base act for what amounts to equally arbitrary reasoning.

Herzog’s latest documentary, Into the Abyss, turns his peculiarly sensitive eye toward Texas, its death penalty, and the case of two young men, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, who murdered three people so that they might steal a car. Perry is scheduled to be put to death, while Burkett was given a life sentence. Here, again, in those words, a paradox resides. Herzog remains behind the camera for the entirety of the film, subjugating his presence to his singular voice asking questions of the people he interviews: the perpetrators, the family members of the victims, the priest who will be with Michael Perry on the day he is executed, Jason Burkett’s prison-bound father, the sheriff who worked the case, and a cast of characters from Conroe, Texas, that perhaps only Herzog would take the time to find. Herzog also employs footage taken of the crime scene by the police as the sheriff and others retrace the events of the murder.

In his typical fashion, Herzog’s concern is less with outright moralizing or passing judgement. Early in the film he tells Michael Perry that Herzog does not need to like him, and that his circumstances do not exonerate his deeds, but that Perry, as a person, should not be put to death and deserved a common respect afforded to all people. As such, Herzog interviews all effected parties, observing the considerable emotional damage inflicted on the victims’ families, and weighing out potential causes for so absurd a crime. It becomes macabrely appropriate that the first victim’s, Sandra Stotler, body was unceremoniously disposed of in a lake called “crater lake”; Herzog’s film records the impact of this crime on the lives of both the victims and their murders.

Indeed, this line between victim and perpetrator becomes complicated and muddied when the view of the film pulls back to examine the apparatus of the death penalty, how it dehumanizes both those put to death and those who must kill them simultaneously. Those murdered inmates without family are buried by the state in a cemetery; the inmates’ headstones bear no names, only numbers. Herzog’s camera moves over this cemetery, its numerous crosses with serial numbers without name, identity and humanity submerged into the grinding gears of a state machine. Lying unspoken behind these images is the fact that this mode of dehumanization is not a new invention and has, in the past, signified other catastrophically inhumane occurrences.

This is not to say that the film is entirely without lighter moments, or reprieve from its darker interrogations. Herzog, as he often does, leads his interview subjects down particular paths, at times drawing them through a line of questioning that seems absurd or trivial, often to equally humorous or poignant result. Herzog’s interviews with some acquaintances of Perry and Burkett’s, and one young man in particular, provide surprisingly light-hearted anecdotes unrelated to the case. The film also speaks to Burkett’s wife, who was a lawyer working on his case before marrying him in prison, and who is now mysteriously pregnant with what may or may not be Burkett’s child. The film’s final outcome, however, is intractably tied to Michael Perry’s own inevitable outcome, and, as such, there is only so much light that is able to get in.

In the latter stages of the film, a former prison guard who was in charge of over 125 executions is interviewed by Herzog. This guard relays advice given to him, stating that you have to “live your dash”; your dash being the stroke between the year you were born and the year you die on your tombstone, that dash signifying your life. This sentiment speaks to the philosophy espoused at every corner by Herzog, that in the face of the absurdities of time and death and nature, you have no choice but to live ecstatically. It also reasserts the most fundamental negation carried out by capital punishment: that in death its victims are robbed of even the humanity of a tombstone, that the state looks to erase a life, and its crimes, completely, despite its inability to resurrect the dead, or erase the crime itself. In the end, the denial of life has no efficacy other than further negation.


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