Let Herzog lead you down into the dark.
Werner Herzog has one of the most distinctive voices in modern cinema, in terms of both cinematic style and literally his speech. Along with his provocative choices in subject matter, his treble tone and wry insightful commentary have made his documentaries famous. While Cave of Forgotten Dreams (arguably the best use of 3D technology in film to date) was loaded with Herzog’s narration and philosophizing, in Into The Abyss he steps back slightly, but still creates a stark and meaningful meditation on the death penalty.
Continuing his tendency to explore the extremes of humanity, Herzog goes to Conrow, Texas, interviewing Michael Perry, who is scheduled to die in six days for a triple homicide he committed 10 years ago as a teen. Herzog, openly stating his abhorrence for the death penalty, interviews both the victims’ and murderers’ families as well as the perpetrators, painting a portrait of generational suffering and systemic issues which incarceration has no hope of remedying.
Broken into six chapters, the prologue and epilogue (the latter aptly Herzogianly named “The Urgency of Life”) reverberate most strongly with Herzog’s style, prodding musings, and humour. Opening with an interview with a death row pastor, in under five minutes Herzog asks why God would allow the death penalty and then for him to “please describe an encounter with a squirrel.” But Herzog’s humour is not at the preacher’s expense or for laughs alone: it opens discussion for Herzog to explore an overarching theme in his films, that of the relationship between nature and man. Further, while other filmmakers might attempt to find humour in the hillbilly town, Herzog’s questions and camera never do so, instead provoking candid responses and genuine insights into grieving, loss, and catharsis.
Those hoping for more Herzog one-liners might be disappointed, as he lets his subjects do much of the talking. But the film ultimately proves the point that living can be much harder to do than dying. And that, at times, it can be the cruelest punishment of all.