director Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog doesn’t consider his death row documentary Into the Abyss to be an anti-capital punishment film. But it is, more or less. It’s an exploration of the story of a particular heinous crime, committed in Texas in 2001 by two boys who were teenagers at the time. They murdered two other teens and the mother of one of the victims, ostensibly to steal a Camaro. One of the boys got a life sentence, the other a death sentence. Herzog interviews them and their families, the families of the victims, police, and former workers in the execution process.
While Herzog is not heavy-handed, he states early on in one of the interviews that he is against the death penalty, that he believes that no one, no state, has the right to take the life of anyone. Herzog is notorious for inserting himself, if not visually, distinctively, in his documentaries, with his soft German-accented English and strangely deep-thinking, interpretive and leading questions. It would probably be more of a problem if he wasn’t so drawn to such compelling material, that his subjects evoke more than his voice can diminish.
The most compelling moments come from a couple of the interviewees. Firstly the former director of the Texas facility that does the actual work of killing the inmates. He had overseen the process of hundreds of executions, but after the first time that he put a woman through the process, he lost his nerve and sense of what he believed. He stepped down from the job and is now avowedly anti-capital punishment.
The father of the boy who ended up with a life sentence, who himself is serving a 40 plus sentence in a facility “across the road” from his son, is the other extremely compelling presence. He recounts how he testified for his son’s sentence to be commuted to life, as he was no kind of father to the boy, that the boy had little chance in life. He goes on to talk about his shame in finding himself in prison with two of his sons, having Thanksgiving dinner together, and being handcuffed to his son. His regrets and realizations reveal the pain and depth of soul-searching that he has undergone, that he truly lives with his sorrows.
The meetings with the survivors of the victims are sad as well. It seems as if everyone in these families, the killers or the victims, have much tragedy and death within their clans. What isn’t evoked in great perspective is the reality of the towns in which they live. Herzog’s camera skims the town, but doesn’t seem to capture much there.
Herzog doesn’t beat the drum heavily in one way or another on the issues. He shows sympathy with the families of the deceased, as with the prisoners and their families, but stating, as he does, where he stands leaves the film at a tilt, whether you agree with him or not on the issue.
The two prisoners deny their guilt, blaming one another. The oldest story in a prison, perhaps. But the boy murderer, now a young man with still very boyish looks, is executed 8 days after Herzog’s interview with him, adding some weight to the issue. Guilty or not, regretful or not, this man, alive and vibrant in his interview, is now dead. It’s little question as to his guilt as far as the film is concerned. And the crimes were indeed heinous.
The other young man is now married to a very pretty and intelligent young woman who became involved with him through her work in advocating for prisoners. By the end of the film she is pregnant, somehow, with the inmate’s child. This is a dubious aspect that Herzog treats with gentleness, though it is also a very awkward thing in itself.
There is a lot going on in the film, a lot in the issues, in the stories. And it’s a worthwhile endeavor. I think I’d prefer if Herzog maybe produced his documentaries rather than directing them. His personalization of the material, an honest enough fact of their production, seems typically odd and dissonant. I mean, what did these small town Texans think of this oddball German film-maker? With his probing, fancifully existential questions?
There are no answers. Which is fine.