Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life

If Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one of the IFI’s most successful films of last year, appealed to audiences because of its unique inquiry into the origins of human creativity, then Werner Herzog’s latest venture Into the Abyss – a study of a triple murder and capital punishment case in Conroe, Texas – should draw crowds for its equally discerning ruminations on the culture and practice of annihilation. 

Working again with Creative Differences, the production company which Herzog made Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End Of the World as well as Cave of Forgotten Dreams with, Into the Abyss (opening exclusively at the IFI from March 30th) almost immediately distinguishes itself from other documentaries on the subject of the death penalty when, less than five minutes into the film, Herzog invites the Reverend Richard Lopez, a Death House Chaplain to “describe an encounter with a squirrel”. 

While this idiosyncratic approach is typical of the kind of humour that often characterizes Herzog’s films, Into the Abyss is a profound and serious film which casts a poetic, philosophical gaze over the remnants of heinous crime and its effects, as well as the lengthy and, from some perspectives, torturous system of capital punishment still in place across 34 states. Albeit unusual, Herzog’s questions are often a means of disarming his subjects, many of whom are participants in the deeply ritualistic process of capital punishment, who struggle not to employ the indoctrinated language with which it is associated. In important respects, Herzog poses as sociologist, attempting to look at things, as criminologist David Garland describes, “from the point of view of the participants and the social world they occupy.”[1]

Werner Herzog 

Although opposed to the death penalty (a fact made clear in his press notes as well as in the film itself), Herzog does not incite the kind of discourse which typifies and forms part of public engagement with the death penalty in America. For instance he passes up the opportunity even to draw reference to Rick Perry, current Governor of Texas, outspoken champion of the death penalty (234 executions have been carried out in the state since Perry assumed his role 11 years ago) and figure of both hate and ridicule for anyone with vague leanings toward the left (see his campaign video ‘Strong’ for further insight into his strange and alarming perspectives). 

While viewing events from his subjects’ perspectives, Herzog also acts as outsider, playing, as he describes it “the Bavarian from the mountains”, provoking responses from his subjects that blur the line between confession and performance. As a result, Into the Abyss does not fit neatly into any pre-conceived notions of what a documentary film is. Instead, it is distinctly Herzogian, enacting some of his trademark and most effective devices, particularly in the rolling footage sequences of Texas scenery – unpeopled sidewalks, trailer parks, abandoned petrol stations, prison gates and religious slogans – held up as a mirror to the inner turmoil of the people in the film. As one critic has described, “Herzog wants his landscapes to talk back to us and to the figures that populate them, yet from his point of view they have nothing to express but their wholesale indifference.”[2] Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the episode in which Herzog visits the police impounding lot to see the stolen car for which its owner was killed. Here, an officer explains that at one stage during the 10 years the vehicle has been in custody, a tree growing in the soil beneath it pushed up with such force that it burst through the bottom of the car.  

Much like Herzog’s film Stroszek, which he also shot in America, Into the Abyss is a kind of eulogy to a place, haunted in parts by senseless crime and aimless drifter existence.  Herzog says Stroszek, a film about a down-and-out street performer from Berlin who emigrates to Wisconsin, North Carolina, “is about shattered hopes”, a theme which also features heavily in Into the Abyss.  As in earlier films, Herzog attempts here to illustrate his own idea “that our civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness”.[3]  In this way, Into the Abyss explores universal themes, using the peculiar institution of the death penalty in Texas as a means of posing broader questions, and doubts, about the notion of punishment as a symbol of retribution.

There will be a preview screening of Into the Abyss plus satellite Q&A with Werner Herzog at the IFI on March 27th at 18.20.

Alice Butler

Into the Abyss opens EXCLUSIVELY at the IFI on March 30th. 

[1] Garland, David, Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 14
[2] Prager, Brad, The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth, Wallflower Press, 2007, p. 14
[3] Cronin, Paul (ed.), Herzog on Herzog, Faber and Faber, 2002, p. 2

1 comment:

  1. "Into the Abyss" makes a strong case for the inhumanity of capital punishment, regardless of the crime or the criminal.