Sunday, 1 April 2012

Into the Abyss

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Into the Abyss: A tale of death, a tale of life looks at the issue of Capital Punishment in America and specifically at the case of the convicted murderer Michael Perry who in October 2001, along with Jason Burkett, murdered three people in Conroe, Texas.

Unlike his last documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams in which Herzog provided much of the commentary in his hypnotic Bavarian monotone, in Into the Abyss he allows both the perpetrators of the murder and those that it affected to provide the majority of the dialogue save for some discerning and hard hitting questions and the occasional voice over from Herzog himself. This allows the story to be told from a first hand perspective and gives great insight as to the motives and consequences of the crime as well as the surrounding circumstances. One thing that the film uncovers is that not one person within the story, whether victim, perpetrator or those in the wider community has lived a happy or trouble free life. It uncovers a kind of underclass within the town of Conroe that perhaps runs through the rest of the country. It seems that everyone Herzog talks to has either been in jail, has had experience of violent crime or has experienced great tragedy. This was an eye opener for me and my girlfriend, coming from middle class families in the UK. It feels a million miles away from the America of the movies.

The film also skirts around the cycle of violence and the fact that you are more likely to commit crime and go to jail if other members of your family have. Jason Burkett, who escaped the death penalty but was given a life sentence, grew up in a house without his father who was and still is in jail for murder. His brother was also in jail. Toward the end of the film, Herzog discovers that Burkett has smuggled his seamen out of the jail and has impregnated a woman who he met after he was convicted. The cycle continues.

Herzog makes it quite clear at the beginning of the film that he is against capital punishment and I suppose I should also lay my cards on the table and state that I agree. I completely understand the arguments for; justice, financial reasons, deterrent, making a person pay the full price, an eye for an eye etc but I personally believe that a state/country loses its moral high ground when it murders its own citizens, for any reason. I don’t think any state has a right to murder. I also believe that it doesn’t act as a deterrent as when you compare crime statistics you discover that the USA has a murder rate of 4.8 per 100,000 with Capital Punishment in place compared to 1.23 in the UK, 1.16 in Australia and 0.84 in Germany. Despite Herzog’s belief, the film remains pretty balanced and gives both those for and against an opportunity to state their reasons. My stance didn’t change but I definitely hated the two men the film documents and thought that the world would have been a much better place without them.

The film is very good at creating tension. In one particular scene, Herzog’s camera passes through the corridor towards the death camber, passed the cell in which an inmate spends their last night, passed a stack of bibles and two tables with flowers on them and through a thick metal door, into a room with a gurney, on which the inmates will die. The scene had me sweating and almost shaking. It is quite chilling. The whole film is edited superbly and uses music to great effect.

One of the downsides of the documentary is that it left me wanting to know much more about the case, the legal system and Conroe, Texas. At 105 minutes, I would have happily sat through another 30. Another problem is that it feels very televisual. This however is a problem that many documentaries face.

The film is bleak and troubling and doesn’t shy away from gruesome scenes and descriptions. It had my girlfriend and I discussing it all the way home which is something that few films manage and is a must watch for anyone with a vote in America.      

Additional. Since watching the film I've found out that it was compiled from just five hours of footage, which makes the resulting film even more remarkable. Along with the feature, Herzog has also made four 45 minute TV Documentaries about other inmates on Death Row which are currently airing on Channel 4 here in the UK and are well worth checking out.

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