Toronto: Werner Herzog looks ‘Into the Abyss’ of death and crime


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Since the premiere of his new documentary last weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, filmmaker Werner Herzog has been saying that ‘Into the Abyss’ could have been the title of any number of his films. On reflection he’s probably right, as the wanderers, seekers and misfits that populate his fiction and documentary films alike all seem to face down the mysteries of the world. As it is, ‘Into the Abyss’ is a look at a capital murder case in Texas from 2001 in which three people were killed, one man was executed and another faces 40 years in prison.

Errol Morris’ ‘The Thin Blue Line’ famously helped get a man out of prison -- and more recently the inmates known as the West Memphis Three were released due to the attention their case got from a series of documentaries -- but Herzog had no such intent when making his film, which also played this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. He was not interested in reexamining or retrying the case, which involved a dispute over a Camaro; rather, he wanted to look at the larger effect of the crime.


‘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.’

Herzog got his on-camera interview with one of the killers, Michael Perry, just eight days before his execution last year. Among Herzog’s other interview subjects are the other convicted killer, Jason Burkett; his father, also incarcerated; a police detective who handled the case; a death-house chaplin; a former executioner; a woman who lost both her mother and brother in the crime; and the woman who has married Burkett while he has been in prison and as the film ends is pregnant with his child.

Despite the clear and overwhelming evidence around the case -- and Herzog includes shocking crime scene footage from police videos -- Perry and Burkett feebly plead their innocence to his camera.

‘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.’

Herzog is adamant that his film is ‘not a film about capital punishment.’ Even as he attempted to understand his subjects, he was personally unwavering in his opposition to the death penalty.

‘For me it has been a decision of principle,’ he said. ‘I’m German and of the first post-war generation and in a way still feeling the barbarism of the Nazi regime: capital punishment, euthanasia and the genocide of 6 million people. So it’s clear that I cannot be on the side of capital punishment. And since I am a guest in your country and a guest in Texas, I respectfully disagree.’

‘Into the Abyss’ has been acquired by Sundance Selects, although a general release date has not been announced.


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-- Mark Olsen in Toronto