Werner Herzog is, in my opinion, one of the best documentary film-makers alive; his films are superbly made and have an uncanny knack of capturing the human spirit, whether this is expressed in adversity or in triumph. Life lived in extremis is the stock-in-trade of Herzog.
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, is an exquisitely made Herzog film which fits the aforementioned descriptor to a tee. It features two men convicted of a bizarre triple homicide which occurred in Texas. The two baby-faced protagonists, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, were jailed for their crimes; the former received the death penalty and the latter a life sentence.
The murders that Perry and Burkett committed were utterly senseless and were the result of a botched car robbery. Herzog spends some time explaining the details of the crimes, which although extremely unpleasant, acts as a counterbalance to the personal interviews he conducted with Perry and Burkett. And this is important. Why? Simply because it is hard to connect the smiling and articulate Perry, and indeed the articulate and intelligent Burkett, to their atrocious crimes.
The interview with Perry was especially poignant given that it was recorded just eight days prior to his execution by lethal injection. But so to was the encounter with the daughter and sister of two of the murder victims, and the brother of the third victim; their pain was palpable and difficult to watch. Thanks to Herzog’s interviewing skills, the relatives were able to tell their stories, often without words, but unmistakeable in intent – their emotions were raw and unhealed.
Equally poignant was the opening scene where Herzog interviews a pastor who has accompanied many prisoners to their deaths. The moment he breaks down as he countenances yet another execution provides a glimpse of a tortured soul. As does the interview with a former death-row captain, a man who has taken some one hundred and twenty-five people to the death chamber and witnessed their executions. His breakdown and subsequent inability to continue with his job provides an insight into the mind of a man who had gone full circle – once an avid proponent of the death penalty, and now a staunch opponent.
Bizarrely, Burkett’s wife makes an appearance in the film. She met and married Burkett post-conviction and claims to be pregnant with his child which ostensibly is the result of artificial insemination using a sperm sample smuggled out of the prison. One is left wondering exactly what compels an intelligent woman to get involved with a murderer who has little chance of ever being released.
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life is a difficult film to watch. But nonetheless it is a film that offers so much; each one of the individuals Herzog focuses in on is staring into an abyss, whether that be the abyss of grief or burden, or impending death at the hands of the state. This he does with a powerful intensity that will leave you exhausted at the end of the film. It leaves many questions unanswered. But then again that is what it’s all about – to provoke thought and inner reflection.
Watch this film – you won’t regret it. The trailer below will give you a taster: