Werner Herzog | 2011 | Canada, Germany | 107mins | Documentary
Werner Herzog’s (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) latest documentary has a typically fascinating focus: following the director as he conducts intimate interviews with prisoners on death row.
Part of a longer term project on the issue (including a series of shorter TV films), Into the Abyss... primarily examines the case of two young men from Texas, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett; who were sentenced to, respectively, death and life imprisonment after killing three people whilst stealing a car. Herzog interviews both men and their family and friends; his conversations with Perry taking place just 8 days before his execution.
Filmed with Herzog’s trademark eye for the weird and absurd (his questions to various interviewees range from the insightful to the simply bizarre: “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel”, anyone?) it nevertheless doesn’t shy away from the pain and horror inherent in the matter at hand for the victims, the perpetrators and their families.
Herzog is against the death penalty – having grown up in the shadow of Nazi Germany, he is clear a state shouldn’t have the right to execute its citizens – but doesn’t attempt to disprove or trivialise the crimes of his subjects, or to change the political agenda. Rather, questions of guilt and innocence are sidelined in favour of a serious though very Herzog-ian portrait of the reality of the situation of death row, and all of its oddities. But despite Herzog’s occasional levity, this is nevertheless very serious cinema on a topic that’s guaranteed to generate a great deal of press interest.
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