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Squirrels, alligators, monkeys and rainbows - Werner Herzog has always been fascinated by mankind's relationship with nature, and in his deathrow doc "Into the Abyss", nature bizarrely bursts into the testimonies of his subjects. Although the Director declares his objection to the death penalty early on, he is less interested in creating a polemic against capital punishment, and more concentrated on seeing how ordinary people live with broken lives in extreme circumstances.
In 2010, Herzog interviewed Michael Perry, a 28 year old Texan convict, eight days before he received a lethal injection. Perry and his accomplice, Jason Burkett were convicted for gunning down a 55 year old widow, Sandra Stotler, in her home to steal her car. Later, they also murdered her son and his friend, also taking his motor.
Perry received the death sentence, but Burkett narrowly avoided the same penalty when his jailbird father, appeared in court to plead for his son's life. His testimony swung two jurors, and Burkett Jr received forty years behind bars instead.
Herzog strips things right back with "Into the Abyss", favoring long, talking head interviews with not only the condemned and the bereaved, but people involved in the "process" of capital punishment. Every one of them is broken, haunted or doomed. Luckily, Herzog's peculiar interview technique often takes his subjects on surreal tangents, breaking the unremitting catalogue of failure and despair.
It's a clever technique, and one suspects Herzog uses it to find what he is really after - evidence of life in the abyss. He is respectful but fearless in his interviews; "I don't have to like you." He frankly explains to a man about to die, but then goes on to lead Perry to happier memories, and shares a joke with him about the absurdity of a medical check up before an execution.
A sincere prison chaplain, clearly troubled spiritually by his role in the system, is filmed in front of rows of headstones - it's the prison cemetery, and there are no names, only numbers. He takes comfort in offering spiritual guidance to these lost men, but Herzog wants to talk about the squirrels the chaplain saw on the golf course.
The Chaplain's face lights up as he describes how he almost ran over two of the little fellas in his golf cart, hitting the brakes just in time - then his face clouds over again, as he seems to see some peculiar metaphor in the story.
These peculiar tales and moments of absurd humour seem to be what Herzog is digging for - trying to mine these basic nuggets of hope that keep life going, no matter how dimly.
Herzog avoids using too much grisly footage from the police archive on the crime, instead selecting clips which highlight a life rudely and brutally interrupted - the TV plays eerily in the background as the police camera investigates the Stotler home. The victim was baking at the time of her fateful callers, and egg shells remain on the worktop, a tray of cookies ready to go in the oven.
He also manages to find dignity and heroism in unlikely places. He talks to a young man, Jared Talbert, who once ran with Perry and Burkett, and shrugged off getting stabbed with a screwdriver so he wouldn't be late for work. Talbert spent some time inside, and used it as an opportunity to learn to read and write, and go straight - Herzog clearly takes a shine to the shy, droll mechanic, giving him ample screen time to display some disarmingly dry humor.
At the other end of the scale is Burkett Senior, a serial offender who has spent most of his life behind bars, and will probably die there. The old man's story is a tale of poor choices, failure, drug and alcohol abuse, and crime to support his habit. He is open about his failure in life and as a father, and thanks God for the help he received getting his boy off the death sentence - although he should probably take the credit for that, as his repentance appears sincere.
Most disturbing is Burkett's wife, Melyssa, who worked on his appeal and first met the convict when he was in jail. While they've only ever held hands, she happens to be pregnant with his child. Herzog chases her down on this subject quite ruthlessly, suggesting "Contraband" coming out of the prison. While she denies she is a "Death Row Groupie", there's a disturbing glint of insanity in her eyes, and is the most deluded person involved.
At one point she describes seeing a rainbow on the day she met him, arching from inside the prison to the free world, and saw it as a sign. This is clearly bullshit, but she seems to believe it.
When the documentary takes a break from the talking heads, the images are heavy with stillness - Herzog visits the car four people eventually died over, and finds it rusting away in a police compound, with a tree growing inside; Peter Zeitlinger's camera stalks around the gurney where convicts lose their lives for the crimes they committed, and silence vibrates from it.
Herzog is guilty of a few cheap shots. I was disturbed by the insistence of goading grieving relatives to hold up pictures of their murdered loved ones - I'd be interested to know how much of that was their decision, and how much the Director's.
In such a hardcore Christian stronghold as Texas, he also has a cheap shot at the expense of Sandra Stotler's daughter, who attended Perry's execution and suggests it was more Old Testament-style retribution, and that Jesus probably wouldn't like it much. She deflects the question back admirably.
"Into the Abyss" is a grueling, challenging documentary. Herzog keeps himself off camera, and for once there is none of his pretentious navel-gazing in voice over. The chapter titles are a little bit grandiose, but for the most part lets the ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances do the talking - and they are grimly, rudely alive.
For a film that spends most of the running time in the shadow of death, it is curiously life-affirming. The film concludes with the thoughts of a former captain of the death house - this man was responsible for making sure over 120 got their last meal, but were also strapped down good and tight to receive their final injection.
Now retired, he is solemn and eloquent about his thoughts on the death penalty, and on the importance of "living your dash". I'd never heard that phrase before, referring to the hyphen between your date of birth and death on your headstone. I found it extremely moving, but then he was off talking about watching the hummingbirds...Herzog loves his nature.
(This review was first published on my movie blog, Video Krypt - http://videokrypt.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/into-the-abyss-live-your-dash/)