When looking for documentaries with depth and sophistication, Werner Herzog is in a class of his own. Recently released on Blu-ray, Into The Abyss is a gripping look at the death penalty, a triple homicide, and the lives of those involved. Straightforward by Herzog standards, it clearly and directly investigates the relationships people have with their societal context, but also, as the title implies, with their own souls.
He believes states should not execute people. But far from the partisan crusades we’re used to from documentary diva Michael Moore and kind, Herzog penetrates different layers of his topic without coloring the opinions of his subjects or putting himself into the limelight. Instead he asks questions quietly from off-screen, letting his subjects paint the portrait.
Michael Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of murdering a fifty-year old woman, her son, and his friend over a car. DNA evidence puts them at the scene but they both deny guilt. The interview takes place eight days before Michael Perry’s execution by lethal injection. His childlike smile is likely to stick in anyone’s head for a long time. Burkett, meanwhile, received the lesser sentence of life in prison. This lenience was allegedly the result of testimony from Burkett’s father, himself a life-long criminal and by his own admission, no father at all.
Fans of Herzog will recognize his method. Subjects always finish their thoughts. The camera often rolls after they finish speaking revealing facial ticks, insecurities, and emotional composure – the spontaneous truth of the human face. Though occasionally uncomfortable, these moments are windows to internal realities. Simply sitting still and paying attention, Herzog brings us closer to the whole truth than most filmmakers.
Interviews with friends and family on both sides enrich the economical, moral, religious, and personal context, showing the environments that produced these crimes. Interviews with a minister to execution victims and a former law officer who carried out executions expand the emotional territory even further. Because they don’t know the victims, their accounts are not flavored with the anguish of personal loss and show the natural empathy of human beings in the face of government approved life-taking.
The cinematography is familiar; the camera is generally at head level, often handheld except during interviews, and like many Herzog’s films, give us the most human perspective on the subject as possible. He romanticizes nothing, but shoots respectfully and skillfully. The musical score by Mark De Gli Antoni is gorgeous, and sweeps through the film like an elegy for those passed, and those about to pass.
Unfortunately for the enthusiast, this Blu-ray release has nothing in the way of special features. Because there are no sweeping crane shots or computer effects one might be tempted to skip the Blu-ray edition altogether. But the clarity of HD (1080p with a 1.77:1 aspect ratio) reveals nuances in the faces and eyes that won’t come across as clearly in standard definition. The soundtrack is solid, though this is only distincly noticeable during the rich score. I was pleased with the technical aspects of this release, even if the only other thing on the disc is a trailer. Fortunately, those looking for more can find Herzog’s On Death Row, a series of videos with death row inmates available on YouTube.
Into The Abyss is a rock solid documentary that doesn’t shy away from it’s heavy subject matter, nor does it obsess. Master filmmaker Werner Herzog once again goes beyond the mundane facts to the internal truths of his topic. Special features or not, fans of honest filmmaking should be pleased with this release.