Werner Herzog’s latest foray into the documentary space came from his work on a TV documentary series he is still working on featuring interviews with inmates on death row. Into the Abyss takes one of the interviews and expands on it by getting into the details of the case and adding several interviews with other people somewhat related to the case and the Texas capital punishment system. What results is a film about terrible crime, death and, strangely, the beauty of life.
In one scene from the film, Herzog tells the young man, Michael Perry, soon to be executed that while he strongly opposes the death penalty, it doesn’t mean he has to like him. The heinous crime is not made any less disturbing or disgusting just because the man who committed it is going to be killed, and Herzog doesn’t have to feel bad for the man being executed either. That is the line towed by Into the Abyss. The film explores these attempts to come to terms with the harshest of punishment in the light of the harshest of crimes.
The real power of the film comes from the many other interviews Herzog conducted. Throughout the film he speaks to another man who was convicted as part of the same crime, but who only has a life sentence. He speaks with family members of the victims. He speaks with acquaintances of the convicts, a minister who consoles men at the death house, a man who ran the death house for many years and executed upwards of 125 people, and even a woman who met and has married the second convict while still in prison. In speaking to all these characters, Herzog paints a portrait of the effects of horrific crime and the implications of the death penalty.
Herzog also manages to extract little nuggets of comedic gold. The people he talks to truly are interesting, and it’s always fun to see Herzog prodding people into talking about random things like squirrels, monkeys and tattoos. In those lighter moments we witness the humanity at the core of everyone, even the people we might consider monstrous.
It’s those moments of humanity that actually makes the film surprisingly life affirming. Now, I don’t mean that in the sense of being anti-capital punishment. The affirmation of life comes from the realization that all of us are given a certain amount of time to live on this planet, and how we choose to live it is far more meaningful than even the circumstances or date. As one character in the film says, the important thing is not the date of birth or date of death on your tombstone; it’s the dash we should be concerned with. That little dash is your entire life, and it’s up to you how to live it.