INTO THE ABYSS
It is unusual for a documentary to announce at the outset that the director's mind is already made up. Coming from most film-makers, this might invite charges of bias. From Werner Herzog, it is a challenge. "I don't have to like you.." Herzog tells Michael Parry, wiping the grin off his face, "but I don't believe human beings should be executed".
In 2001, a housewife named Sandra Stotler was making cookies when the doorbell rang. Stotler was murdered, shot twice with a shotgun before being dumped in a lake. As she did not have the keys to her red Camaro, the killers waited for her son to return. They then led him, and a friend, to a forest and killed them both too.
Herzog could have chosen one of many controversial convictions to make a compelling argument against the death penalty, parading faulty evidence, police corruption, and brutalised, pitiful suspects. It can be assumed that his largely liberal audience would already be sympathetic to his cause.
Instead, in //Into the Abyss// he chooses a case of mindless, callous, brutality and obvious guilt. Interviewing Parry and Jason Burkett, both convicted of the crime, Herzog does not challenge their pleas of innocence, their recollection of events, their motives. He is not, it seems, particularly interested in the truth. His interest, as usual, is the human story.
Despite inches of shatterproof glass Herzog searches his subjects with that whispering delivery that accentuates our complicity. He asks Burkett's father - himself a convict - what it was like to once be handcuffed to his son in a prison van, their skin touching. He tells Parry he acted like a 'tough man' when fleeing the police, with uncertain irony.
These shared confidences are uncomfortable enough, but they offer little in the form of post-mortem, post-rationalisation. The convicted killers have their stories of poverty, neglect, abuse and delinquency but Herzog renders Conroe, Texas as a town where tragedy is commonplace.
Sandra Stotler's daughter recites a litany of the deaths and suicides that had befallen her //before// her mother and brother were brutally murdered. Her own hardship, and her balanced and rational demeanour demolishes easy sympathy for the killers on the basis of their upbringing. And she is unapologetic in her defence of the death penalty.
Like many of Herzog's films, there is a thread to //Into the Abyss// about the natural world and our place within it. The film is bookended by interviews with two individuals whose employment has brought them into traumatic, first-hand contact with the process of execution.
Both talk of the solace they take in the natural world, hinting at the need for humans to see good in the world, and treat life as precious. It is that spirit, Herzog seems to argue, that should prevail. In keeping with that faith in humanity, he trusts his audience to decide.
The master turns his eye to Death Row.
A compelling human story, which challenges the viewer as much as the subject.
//In Retrospect// 4
Moving and thought-provoking in equal measure. A Herzog doc of the highest order.