Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Into the Abyss – A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (2011)

by on October 26, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Nov 2 at 7:30* at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts [Program & Tix]
*Werner Herzog in-person


The DOC NYC festival kicks off in a big way with this Opening Night Gala (festivities continue thru Nov 10, at NYU and IFC Center). Movie admission is $35, while for $60 you can attend the Herzog afterparty. Worth the cost, as this is the official NYC premiere of the film, and although picked up by Sundance Selects, there is no official release date.


Positive reviews from Toronto and Telluride…


A.O. Scott for the New York Times:

The best movies pursue an impulse to understand the complexities of human life without settling for easy answers. “Into the Abyss,” Mr. Herzog’s latest extraordinary documentary, looks at first like the kind of true-crime shocker you can easily find on cable television. It explores a particularly senseless triple homicide that took place in Conroe, Tex., a decade ago, and consists almost entirely of conversations with people close to the killings, including Michael Perry, who was convicted of killing one of the victims. He is interviewed as he awaits execution, and the ethics of the death penalty, which Mr. Herzog avowedly opposes, is among the film’s concerns. But “Into the Abyss” — which, Mr. Herzog noted as he introduced a screening of it, “could be the title of quite a few of my films” — is less a piece of political advocacy than a somber inquiry into familiar Herzogian themes of death, violence and time.


It is also a story of shattered families. Mr. Herzog talks with a brother of one of the victims, the sister and daughter of the other two, and with the father of one of the killers, himself serving a long prison sentence. His confession of failure is an especially heartbreaking moment in a movie that is full of them.



Kristopher Tapley for In Contention:

Herzog has manifested a crucial viewing experience. In short, the film is a penetrating, comprehensive look at the issue of capital punishment by way of studying the circumstances and prominent figures in the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two Texas youths who were accused of a triple homicide in 2001. Burkett was sentenced to life in prison. Perry was sentenced to death. Both blame the other for the crime.


Whatever your position on capital punishment, the film is necessary, plain and simple. If you believe in it, you need to spend the time Herzog does with the family and friends of the accused, peeling back the layers of judgment and digging to the root of his thesis: all life is precious. If you don’t believe in it, you need to witness the pain of the victims’ families, as Herzog conveys it, and the cold brutality of the more sterile portions dedicated to forensics and consideration of the crimes. It isn’t for the purpose of swaying opinion, I feel, so much as the purpose of educating whatever opinion you might have.


Herzog’s film is a remarkably balanced portrait (those who support the death penalty may even come away thinking he’s made their case), even if his admission at the top clues the audience in to his leanings here and there. But most importantly, it’s a non-judgmental portrait. His goal is to reveal the circumstances of all involved, not just the chilly facts as documented in a court setting. The world is gray.


Tapley also posts a recording of his interview with Herzog.



Roger Ebert for IFC Films:

The young men are uneducated, rootless, without personal resources. The father perhaps has benefited from prison, as his son may. We meet relatives, a wife, relatives of their victims, a minister, police, and the remarkable Captain Fred Allen, who was long in charge of the guard detail on Death Row. What he has to say during a long introspective memory of one event in his life is one of the most profound statements I can imagine about the death penalty.


The people in this film, I think without exception, cite God as a force in their lives. The killers, the relatives of their victims, the police, everyone. God has a plan. It is all God’s will. God will forgive. Their lies are in His hands. They must accept the will of the Lord. Condemned or bereft, they all apparently find comfort.


Opposition to the death penalty, I suppose, comes down to this: Although the convicted may not deserve to live, no one deserves to be given the task of executing them. I think that’s what Herzog is saying, although he doesn’t say it out loud. In some of his films he freely shares his philosophy and insights. In this film, he simply looks. He always seems to know where to look.


Mark Olsen speaks to Herzog, for the Los Angeles Times:

“This is not an issue film; it’s not an activist film against capital punishment, because the film has only partially to do with someone on death row,” the German-born, Los Angeles-based Herzog said Friday afternoon in his now-familiar rumbling hiss of a voice, ensconced in a Toronto hotel suite after the film’s standing-ovation public screening on Thursday night. “It’s very much about the whole environment. Families of victims of violent crime are equally important. “It’s a tapestry,” the 69-year-old added. “That’s why I named it with the secondary title ‘A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,’ and the entire end of the film is about that urgency, the final sequence is even called ‘The Urgency of Life.’ Why do I have to make an issue film? That’s what you normally expect when you see a TV documentary. ‘Into the Abyss’ — yes, it has an issue, but it’s not the main purpose of the film.”


“I told the perpetrators that I was not in the business of guilt or innocence and this film was not a platform for them to prove their innocence,” Herzog said. “I think in this particular case, with this very senseless crime, so senseless it’s staggering, what fascinated me was that it points to a decay in family values and the cohesion of society, all these things that looked so big and beyond this case. It was not a question of proving their guilt or innocence.”


The film has an unexpected theme of nature running throughout — it opens with an anecdote about squirrels on a golf course, ends on a question regarding hummingbirds and the car on which the crime hinged sat in a police impound yard for so long a tree began to grow up through the floorboards. While Herzog makes it very clear he is against the death penalty (he says as much in the film) he allows his film to have an openness about it, refusing to pass judgment on why one perpetrator should die while another should remain in jail or how a new life somehow emerged from so much death. “You have to make up your own mind. But what I have observed and what I find fascinating is that absolutely no matter how many people were killed and one executed and the other in prison, there seems to be something independent, the urgency of life.”



Scott Tobias for the Onion AV Club:

Herzog’s film isn’t about the death penalty so much as it is a moving disquisition on violent death itself, and how it transforms anyone connected to it—victims, perpetrators, and those who work in the Death House. The two young men convicted in a 10-year-old triple murder in small-town Texas—one serving a life sentence, the other a week away from execution—have conflicting stories about who did what, and both protest their innocence. Though Herzog gives them room to make their case, Into The Abyss isn’t a Paradise Lost-style documentary about wrongful conviction. Instead, it collects testimony from a range of different people, including the victims’ families, the locals, and, most poignantly, a chaplain who accompanies inmates on the gurney and a Death House team leader whose pro-death penalty convictions withered away after escorting dozens of men (and the first woman) to their deaths. Herzog’s queries are typically odd at times, but his frankness and gentle curiosity gets his subjects talking and he seems to get the most out of every one of them. (If he weren’t so busy making films, Herzog would be the ideal host of a Marc Maron-like podcast.)


Catherine Shoard for The Guardian:

At first, it feels like Herzog lingers too long on the grisly details – there’s copious use of the police video of the crime scene, with violins slapped on in post-production. The template here is one superficially familiar from cable channel rush-jobs: sad-faced cops recall lives gone awry, still-teary relatives hold up framed photos of loved ones.But Herzog’s approach makes it feel fresh. “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel” is one of his questions for the prison chaplain, along with “Why does God allow capital punishment?” He gets some remarkable insights from officials in the business of execution – in particular a man who had a sudden breakdown after unstrapping his 125th prisoner from the gurney.


The cumulative effect suggests a world in which murder, desperation and operatic levels of tragedy are workaday (one town is actually called Cut and Shoot). As well as losing her brother and mother in the attacks, one woman tells how she also lost almost every other member of her family (plus dog) in a variety of colourful accidents, suicides and slayings in the six years beforehand. She unplugged her phone soon afterwards: “I just couldn’t handle another call.”


He coaxes stories of mysterious monkey attacks and ravenous alligators from the least likely places, lingers in auto graveyards, where impounded vehicles – including the one which motivated these murders – sit until tree roots spring up next to the gearstick. For something with such a morbid draw, Into the Abyss leaves you startled by life.


A video interview with Herzog, also from the Guardian, can be seen here.



Michael Cielpy speaks with Herzog and his producer, for The New York Times:

“Werner fell down the rabbit hole of this one particular case,” Mr. Nelson said, in describing how “Into the Abyss” became a full-blown feature film.Mr. Herzog, said Mr. Nelson, had just one filmed interview with Mr. Perry, in June 2010, about two weeks before Mr. Perry’s execution. Unlike Mr. Berlinger and Mr. Sinofsky, Mr. Herzog chose to dwell not on his subject’s claims of innocence. Instead he conducted a simple anatomy of the crime and its punishment, as did Truman Capote almost 50 years ago in his murder-case chronicle, “In Cold Blood.”


Among the details are shots of the cookie dough Ms. Stotler was making as she was gunned down, as part of a plan to steal her red Camaro, according to authorities. Mr. Perry, who confessed, then recanted and proclaimed his innocence, displays no remorse for the camera. But under Mr. Herzog’s questioning, a shaken officer, identified in the film as a member of a “death team,” renounces his support of capital punishment.


“It definitely haunted him,” Mr. Nelson said of Mr. Herzog’s experience with the movie, which will be released in theaters by IFC through its Sundance Selects label, and which veers sharply from Mr. Herzog’s sometimes fanciful experiments. During a brief conversation at the Comic-Con International convention in July, Mr. Herzog, who was still editing “Into the Abyss,” said he was too shaken by his encounters with Mr. Perry, his associates, his pursuers and the family of his victims to work on the film for more than a few hours each day. “It caused me to start smoking again,” Mr. Herzog said at the time. Speaking from Telluride, he said that he continued to oppose the death penalty, and still planned to finish his television series on the subject, four installments of which have already been shot.


Andrew Tracy for Cinema Scope:

That old devil Werner reportedly jested that any of his films could bear the title of his latest, but what is perhaps most notable, and commendable, about Into the Abyss is how much it eschews Herzog’s (still enjoyable) Romantic grandiloquence and schticky absurdism in favour of a judiciously measured but unavoidably affecting emotional appeal. While the film’s portentous title would appear to promise a descent to the very roots of the evil that men do, Herzog is more interested in the men themselves, and those who have been touched (scarred, wounded, ruined) by their crime.


It’s remarkable, and chastening, to realize here Herzog’s extraordinary, humanistic skill at allowing (not forcing) people to reveal themselves on camera. If his decades-long pursuit of eccentrics has quite directly yielded the contemporary brand of find-a-freak documentaries, he is leagues beyond them not only in accomplishment but in intent. There is no sensationalizing, no exoticizing, no mockery or condescension towards the (let’s say it) white-trash milieu that Herzog is exploring here. (Which is not to say that he doesn’t make considerable hay out of the comic mileage it affords: one Jared Talbert, a former friend of Burkett’s, had the opening-night audience rolling in the aisles with his almost Kaurismäkian deadpan.) Nor is there any pretentious aggrandizement of the hideous crime at the story’s centre to some statement about violence in America. I cannot honestly think of a more genuinely empathetic, less self-important film about such a subject—which is more than a little surprising, as a large part of the fun of the long-running Herzog show is trying to divine the infinitesimally thin line between ingenuousness and put-on. The many shades of pain on view here quite naturally preclude any joshing, and the fact that Herzog can respectfully, movingly illustrate them without essentially altering the approach he brings to his comparably lighter subjects (from suicidal penguins to bad lieutenants) is a bracing reminder that this perpetual jester, like all great comedians, is forever deadly serious.


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