Guest review by Tim Hoar
4.5 out of 5:
Into the Abyss is an exceptionally good portrait of one crime, as well as the societal background to that crime and the broader concept of the death penalty as being something ‘good’. It is incredible that a documentary about the darkest corners of humanity, as well as the even darker lengths that are gone to to punish this, is such a beautiful film. Execution is murder.
Werner Herzog is such a brilliant feature filmmaker that it is sometimes easy to forget that he is probably the supreme documentarian of our time (though Ken Burns fans may have something to say about that). My personal background – I despise the death penalty about as much as anything else on earth. Werner is not too fond of it either.
What’s it About?
Herzog examines a single crime and all those affected by it. The victims, their families, the perpetrators, the police, everyone. It is a crime that leads to one of the perpetrators being executed, and this is the focus, the place of the death penalty in this one crime and by extension a society that maintains the practice.
Is it any Good?
The film opens with an interview with the ‘Death House’ priest. The man who is with the victims just before they are executed. He spends their last moments of life with them and if they so wish, he comforts them as they are killed by holding their ankles through their last moments on earth. This prologue shows just how incredible Herzog is as an interviewer. He is so excellent at drawing out stories and emotions, whilst also throwing in the occasional left field, ‘Herzogian’ random question. The priest, for me, was possibly the only hero in the entire film. A man who as so much tenderness and affection for those who have done such wrong. A man who also sowed great anger in me when he explains that after they have been killed, if the executed person’s family does not bury the body, the state does it. But only in unmarked graves.
From this beginning, Herzog weaves the entire web of one crime. He tells the story of a triple murder, through many interviews with the cops, perpetrators, journalists and the victim’s families. Herzog goes beyond the surface level of the killings though. He gets to some of the underlying issues – poverty, crime, theft, drugs, booze and more. The type of things that are glossed over in a simplistic ‘you did a horrible thing, you must die’ portrayal of crime and the death penalty. Similarly, through interviews with the father of one of the guilty men, Herzog shows that just like shitty genes, crime is passed through the generations. The father, who has been in prison essentially his whole life, believes that he is as much at fault for the murders as his son. The film as a whole supports this notion too.
Herzog in no way sugar-coats the heinous nature of the murderers’ actions. The manner in which he is able to paint the devastation wrought in the families of those who were murdered is one brilliant example of this. Despite this, he still mounts a very anti death penalty argument. Which is kinda the point. The death penalty is a sickness that pervades all aspects of a society that undertakes it. The best example of this comes during Herzog’s interview quite late in the film with the former captain of the ‘Death House’ where the executions take place. This man is thoughtful and emotional, with a resolute inner core. You can tell that his whole being has been affected by his former line of work. He talks extensively of the effect that a simple “thank you” from the first woman he had to execute, a woman thanking him for all he had done on her last day on earth, had on him. Where is the evidence of the sickness that I refer to? The fact that when this man ultimately decided he could no longer attend his job that was geared toward the taking of human life, the system takes his pension away.