Werner Herzog on Death Row

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life

a film directed by Werner Herzog
Justin Clemons
Mike Perry in prison, Livingston, Texas, 2010

A documentary film is often part stunt, part lab experiment, and the way a documentary filmmaker pursues his or her story will always involve a bit of amateur sleuthing, as well as improvisation. That such scriptless adventures have attracted a great director like Werner Herzog is curious but not alarming. Good documentary films can be made cheaply and we seem to be living in an abundantly golden—or at least copper (penny-wise)—era of them.

Herzog’s latest film, Into the Abyss, much like his 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man, uses the camera as a Geiger counter to locate some of the more toxic elements of the American cultural psyche (here the setting is small-town Texas’s well-traveled road to death row) as seen through the questing mind of a pseudo-squeamish European. Herzog works with a pretense of delicacy. Cellos play behind the scenic detritus of violence. Once again, in his soft, Teutonic, off-camera voice, Herzog insinuatingly, gently coaxes his interviewees—“How are you doing?” he often begins—while his camera registers a more ambiguous, startled fixation on people and places, a willingness to stare bluntly. Director and camera here are like good cop, bad cop.

While given the banal subtitle “A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life,” Into the Abyss doesn’t have its hands on an actual entire tale, as much as on the shiny pieces of many. The project seems to have initially aimed to tell the story of Mike Perry, a Texan inmate on death row for ten years, since the age of nineteen, who, when Herzog meets him, is scheduled for execution in eight days. Although the boyish, bucktoothed Perry eagerly speaks to Herzog and breaks everyone’s heart (almost all who are interviewed speak movingly and with great ostensible openness; how confessional reality television has prepped their personalities and polished their stories one can only guess), Perry’s family refused to appear in the film—a very large gap. (The Guardian has revealed that part of Perry’s eagerness derived from an expectation that Herzog would help him, and when his hopes were dashed he later raged against the director to the newspaper’s interviewer, who believed Perry to be bipolar.*)

Herzog then roams around the whole Texas scene of small-town dysfunction—screwdriver stabbings, joy rides in stolen cars, adult illiteracy—and capital punishment protocol. The actual crime—the shooting of three people in order to steal a red Camaro in a gated community called Highland Ranch—is so senseless and stupidly conceived that it is really just a worst-case portrait of teenage boy drunkenness, impulsivity, poverty-addled sociopathy, and a country so awash in weapons that it has arrived (perhaps once more) to a point in history where every high school student knows how and where to get a gun. This aspect is missing from Herzog’s social critique, which focuses on capital punishment and its inability to deter…

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