In “Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life”, Werner Herzog tells the story of a triple homicide that fractured several lives years ago in Conroe, Texas. While he focuses primarily on the perpetrators of the crime, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, he mostly delves into the morally troubling grey area that allows Burkett to live, and Perry to face Death Row.
Herzog’s politics are simple, his approach non-judgmental. As he told us during press rounds for the film, “Into The Abyss” doesn’t have, “A pre-fabricated agenda. It’s not an issue film, it’s not activism against the death penalty. I’m a filmmaker, and I am a guest in your country, I do not have the rights of voting [here].” In his approach, Herzog explains, “The film, of course, tries to look deep into the heart of everyone, the abysses of the human soul. I’m a storyteller, and I’m after something that is occurring. A court of law has found someone guilty, a monstrous crime has happened.”
But what Herzog uncovered was more than just a tragic injustice. “The unexpected [element] in the film is the urgency of life,” he says. “That’s why the film has a secondary title [’A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life‘]. It came out of the footage. And suddenly, I thought, this is as much about the urgency of life as it is the inevitability of death.”
Herzog was given fifty minutes with each Death Row inmate, allowed one visit every three months. “Every single Death Row inmate wants me back, and I’ve seen them all again with one exception,” he beams. His feelings are more complex when it comes to their crimes, and Herzog only extended them the barest courtesy. “There’s not great empathy with the perpetrators,” he says. “I tell Michael Perry, I do not necessarily need to like him, and he accepts it. The perpetrators are never monsters. People tell me all the time they are monsters, just shoot them. But no one thinks about what the proper course of justice is. They are human, I treat them like human beings.”
Herzog does come down strong on his opinion about the senselessness of the death penalty, however, and he feels the film does a strong job reflecting these views. “My attitude is defensible, I think it is right,” Herzog claims, though he acknowledges the troublesome nature of his background to some. “I have a certain pride of not being an advocate of capital punishment. But my historical background is different. Being German, with the barbarism of the Nazi regime, [you experienced] excessive amounts of capital punishment. Euthanasia. If you were insane, you would be worthless, killed by the state. It’s not even an argument, it’s just a story.”
But Herzog is very careful to posit that his opinions are his own, and not part of a campaign of any sort. “I would be the very last person to tell the American people how to deal with their criminal justice [system], particularly as a German, what can I say? But I leave no doubt that the filmmaker is not an advocate of capital punishment, and if you are, then I would respectfully disagree.”
The picture follows Perry on his final days before his execution, and Perry appears on camera despite the fact he will never get a chance to see the finished footage. This didn’t trouble Herzog, who is accustomed to keeping the finished work from his collaborators. “The people in the film don’t necessarily have to see the film first,” he says, noting that only Lisa Stotler, the surviving daughter of one of the victims, was shown the film before release. “I don’t show a feature film to actors, either. I just make them live with it as it is. There’s this attitude of docility, they all have to like the film. Maybe somebody hates it, which I do not believe, but you have to face it, let it be. I have made a decent film, I am proud of what I did, I can defend my position easily to anyone, what’s the big deal?”
Herzog believes that it’s far more complex than just an issue of whether it’s moral to kill, or not to kill. “Human behavior is a part of it,” he says, “but it’s how we deal with criminal justice, retribution, guilt, innocence. Understanding of good and bad. It’s very complex. I don’t have a prefabricated, easy answer to it either. It is a question of principle.”
He does take a stand on one very specific issue, however. “If, for example, you said, there shouldn’t be capital punishment except for the worst cases, like Osama Bin Laden, life in prison without parole is still the option I would choose. If he had been captured, put him on trial. And if I were the judge or the jury, I would have sent him to solitary confinement for the rest of his days, with no hope for parole.”
“Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life” is in theaters now.