Long-time readers will know that I am a cinema fan, and particularly of the German director Werner Herzog. I recently went to see his new film, Into the Abyss, in a special preview screening arranged by DocHouse, which screens a weekly documentary film in various cinemas around London. I offered to write a review of the film for publication elsewhere, and this is the result.
Into the Abyss had a limited release in the US in November 2011. It will be released in the UK in late March or early April 2012, and will be followed by four shorter films that Herzog made about other inmates on the Texas Death Row, including Linda Carty, a British woman whose case recently received widespread publicity in the UK. The shorter films will, apparently, be shown in the UK on Channel 4. You can view a trailer here, read information about the film here, and hear an interview with Herzog about the film here. I thought it was well worth seeing.
There is a moment at the beginning of Into the Abyss, where the Texas Death House chaplain, who ministers to prisoners being executed, is being interviewed about his role. He seems a placid man, and not willing to be drawn on his opinion of the death penalty. Instead, he talks of God’s plans for the world, the Lord’s mysterious ways, and extols the beauty of creation, using as his example the sun, the wind, and the squirrels on the golf course where he likes to relax. With a question that drew a gasp of laughter from the audience, Herzog asks: “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel?” The chaplain laughs, and explains that two chasing squirrels once ran across the path of his golf cart. He stopped suddenly, watched them, and then reflected that if he had not, he would have killed them. He starts to reflect on having the power of life and death … and then, as if struck dumb, he hesitates … hesitates again … and begins to cry. With the inmates, he says, he doesn’t have that power. Only God does. His sense of powerlessness overwhelms him.
I wouldn’t describe Into the Abyss as a campaigning film, though at the beginning of his interview with Michael Perry (who was executed in July 2010), Herzog does explain that he does not think the state should have the right to kill anyone. Herzog also interviews Jason Burkett, who was convicted in a separate trial for the same triple murder as Perry. (Burkett received a life sentence with a minimum term of 40 years). Unlike other documentary films on the death penalty, the issue of guilt or innocence does not loom large here. Although the facts of the case are presented in some detail, and the effect on the victims’ families is laid bare through a series of harrowing interviews, the film does not take a position on the convicted men’s guilt, leaving viewers to make up their own minds. If anything, the film is rendered more interesting if one assumes that they are guilty; the focus comes off the crime, and onto the way in which society chooses to deal with it.
The crimes themselves are horrifying. The first victim was killed, apparently, for no greater reason than that the killers wanted to steal her car. The other two victims were, effectively, in the wrong place at the wrong time. I could understand no reason at all for the deaths; killing is never justified, but rarely can it be as random or as senseless as in this case. The victims’ relatives, themselves with tragic stories to tell before these murders, try as best they can to explain the impact on them, and one of them makes impassioned and powerful testimony in favour of capital punishment, as a means to lighten her burden. I was also very struck by the long section of the film dealing with Conroe, where the killings took place. Residents who spoke in the film left me with the impression of a town where everyone has experienced deprivation and violence. One man, outlining what seems to have been, for him, a routine fight, explains how he was stabbed with a ten-inch screwdriver, adding that he had to be at work half an hour later, and so didn’t go to hospital. Arrests at family funerals, drug addiction, parents in prison, accidents involving cars and trains; everyone has their story to tell. It doesn’t excuse the killings, but it left me in no doubt that extreme communities produce extreme behaviour. This is a point made strongly by Burkett’s father, who is, like many fathers in the film, serving a life sentence. Wearily, he wonders what would have happened if he had been a better father to Jason.
By the end, I felt that the chaplain’s feeling of powerlessness, of being a cog in a system that he has no control over, ran through the entire film, and became emblematic of people all through who seem sunk in a system that they cannot control. In among the suffering and the loss, there are moments of unexpected humour. Herzog is a mischievous interviewer and does not mind asking awkward questions (about squirrels, for example, or about Burkett’s marriage in prison and his relationship with his wife). There is also a remarkable moment of lyricism and hope in the story of a prison guard who has an uncomfortable encounter with his conscience after unstrapping his 125th executed prisoner from the gurney. The emotions and the stories in this film are extreme, but it is light enough to be bearable. And even though, on balance, I left the film with no doubt as to the killers’ guilt, I also walked away feeling that for Texas to execute Perry made no more sense than for Perry to kill for a sports car.