Nov 12, 2011

Into The Abyss

Werner Herzog starts his powerful, devastating new documentary about the death penalty and violence in America, interviewing clergyman Richard Lopez at a cemetery. Lopez is a priest who accompanies those sentenced to death as they receive the lethal injection in a death row jail in Texas. In this first interview, Herzog sets up his approach to the topic. At first we think he is going to mock or confront the priest about the seeming absurdity of the Church participating in such a ritual. But Herzog simply asks Lopez what it is exactly that he does at the death chamber. The priest explains that he is there to be with the convicts in their final moments and he is only allowed to hold the condemned man by the ankle. There is something at once childlike, primitive and biblical about this minor detail, and this is the kind of nugget that Herzog knows how to mine. Herzog does ask him quite skeptically about God's role in all of this, to which the priest answers that everything happens for a purpose, etc. Lopez starts talking about spending time alone at a golf course and observing birds and squirrels. He then breaks down in tears as he thinks how he is able to save two squirrels from getting squashed under his car but there is nothing he can do to save the convicts at the death chamber.
The camera gets closer to the crosses behind Lopez, which are all identical, and Lopez explains that those death row inmates who have no one to take care of their burial are buried here by the state, with a cross and only their inmate number -- no name. It is only then that we realize there is something strange about this cemetery and these crosses. It's as if the men were killed by the state but the state wants to act like they never existed. This is such a quietly outrageous image, that I still have trouble trying to understand how it is possible. Just the sight of this decent man, trying to do what he believes is God's work in a bizarre system, standing in front of a verdant field of endless numbered crosses, is devastating. Every question that Herzog asks from his subjects, begets many more questions in the viewer. Are these men alone in the world or have their families rejected them? Is it the state's business to murder convicts, and then bury them with nameless crosses? What is it about the US that disconnects people so much from one another? 
This film does not pretend to be an "objective" look into capital punishment in the US. To make his point about the absurdity, the indignity, the wrongness of the death penalty, Herzog uses the capital case of two young white men in Texas, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were teenagers at the time of the crimes. Shrewdly, Herzog chooses to focus on an air tight murder case that cannot be easily tainted by partisan politics or ideology. The men are both white, as are all their victims, in full possession of their minds, and the evidence against them is incontrovertible. He starts the film fooling the audience into thinking that what we may be about to see a gross miscarriage of justice, but then he slowly reveals the chilling circumstances of the case, which make the viewer feel like the two kids should fry in hell for all eternity. They committed a wanton and callous triple murder.
Herzog lets the facts of the case unfold as if in a mystery, but this is not a procedural or a criminal investigation. He layers the revelations so skillfully, manipulating them precisely against our assumptions or expectations, that he creates an exponential portrait of senseless violence. Both convicts accuse each other of the crimes; both are lying. Herzog is not interested in the minutiae, or in who did what.  He is interested in the deeper mystery of why men commit murder and the devastating emotional consequences of such violence. This story, as told to him by the relatives of the victims, a police officer, the father and the wife of one of the murderers, a couple of acquaintances of the murderers and a man who used to work at death row, is a bottomless parade of human calamity, an abyss of pain that sears everyone connected to it, compounded by the crowning absurdity of the death penalty.
Herzog is too smart to sound superior, snide or impatient with the bizarre paradoxes of the moral vision of the state of Texas. This is not smartass agitprop a la Michael Moore. Herzog is an enormously skilled storyteller and a serious artist; he wants us to absorb the shocking contradictions and comprehend the scale of human suffering, and that is how he quietly, personally makes his political statement.
The movie is shot by Herzog's longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, in simple but powerful compositions of the subjects in mostly medium shots in the foreground of the frame. I don't know how Herzog got the local police to let him use the footage they took of the actual scenes of the crimes, but he does, to remarkable effect. This is stuff that the public never gets to see, and it is horrible and surprisingly sad. One of the victims was killed as she was baking cookies. The police find the tray with the cookie dough and the TV on.
Herzog has an eye for the powerful image. He repeatedly films the empty death chamber, with the little cell that holds the prisoner in the last hours of his life a dozen steps away, a table laden with no less than four Holy Bibles in English and Spanish in front of the cell, and the actual chamber itself, with the lethal injection gurney and its many restraints. Everything looks antediluvian except for a state of the art digital clock inside the chamber. There is no need for Herzog to comment. He just trains his camera on visions of abject absurdity.
Herzog is usually an eccentric character in his documentaries, asking pesky questions and having contrarian opinions. In this case, he refrains from making comments or passing judgement. He allows the testimony of these people to create a heartbreaking tapestry of hurt and injustice.But he is a great interviewer: gentle, intimate and blunt at the same time. He asks the right and logical questions, and some slightly eccentric ones, and all of his subjects open up to him. It seems like they know, can sense or have been told that he is an important filmmaker and some of them address him with a formality that is very touching. 
There is something about the way in which Herzog focuses on some detail in one person's story, that creates a whole reality without him needing to establish a lot of context. He interviews a friend of Jason Burkett who recounts how Burkett once held a gun to his temple for hours and then shot at him, and somehow the gun did not go off. The kid and Herzog talk about how lucky that was and Herzog somehow coaxes him to reveal that he learned to read and write in jail (most of the males in this film have been in jail). Herzog asks him how it feels to be able to read and write (awesome) and surmises that you have to be twice as smart as everybody else to function in the world without reading and writing. Herzog does not make a big deal out of it, but one wonders, is this the richest country in the world where you still have illiterate, impoverished adults? Why is everyone in Texas so hell bent on self-destruction?
By focusing on the personal on a small scale, he opens a vista of a United States that is deeply troubling; a place, Texas at least, where young, piss-poor people may not have access to education or opportunity but they apparently have unfettered access to guns, where entire families fester in jails and where the state kills people who killed other people, which makes the law and lawlessness look too much like each other.
The title of the film, Into the Abyss, sounds just like a nature documentary (it is a film about human nature). Its subtitle is A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life. Of life after senseless death and of life in spite of death, of bad lives, life in jail, lives that should by all accounts be less fraught with danger and hardship. Herzog ends hid film in a note of hope, with a woman pregnant by one of the murderers. Having heard his pronunciations about the cruelty of nature before, I don't believe he just wants to give us a ray of sunshine. I understand that the need to continue human life is just as strong as the need for some to end it, but I wasn't completely comforted by the thought of bringing a baby into such a world, After all, what is the future for this kid, whose father is up for parole in another 30 years? Yet, if anything gives you faith in human nature in this film it is that at least some of them, like Burkett's father, feel guilt, sorrow and remorse; others have a conscience, like Lopez and Fred Allen, a man who finally quits his job at death row after enduring too many executions.
A conscience, which is what the murderers lacked, is all we can hope for, all we need to ensure we don't descend into savagery.

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