Werner Herzog on Disarming Subjects, the Death Penalty and Going “Into the Abyss”

Werner Herzog insists it’s purely a “statistical coincidence” that his death penalty doc “Into the Abyss” is being released after a fall in which the death penalty debate has heated up with the controversial execution of Troy Davis and the release of the West Memphis Three, thanks in large part to the efforts of filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost” series.


“Sometimes it happens that things come together as if planned but they were not planned,” he said in a roundtable interview in the usual deliberate speech touched by wisdom and whimsy, days before the release of “Abyss,” which will serve as the bookend of sorts following his summer sensation “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Whereas that film was about bringing the past back to life, his latest is very much about capturing life in the moment where it’s about to become the past for Michael Perry, a convicted murderer eight days away from being administered a lethal injection.

Unlike so many films before it that have centered on the death penalty, the film isn’t told from the point of view of an activist, though Herzog is quick to mention he is not an advocate of the practice. It is, instead as I wrote in my initial review at the Toronto Film Festival, an “investigation that isn’t intended to prove guilt or innocence, but rather explore the passing down of inexplicable criminal behavior between generations” as the director visits family members of both the victims and the perpetrators in the small community of Conroe, Texas to make sense of the triple homicide Perry and Jason Burkett, who unlike Perry will serve out a life sentence, are in prison for.


IntoTheAbyssHerzog2“The choice for the subject was quickly established because I was so baffled by the senselessness of this crime,” Herzog says now. “It’s not a propaganda film. It’s just about a senseless crime and all its ramifications including the death of one of the perpetrators and a triple homicide, the death of three human beings and all the repercussions and all the emptiness and all the wounds that this crime left in other people.”


Herzog had less than an hour to conduct interviews with both of the inmates and notes he didn’t spend much more time with anyone else he interviewed, though that didn’t keep him from making a connection with everyone he interviewed. He tugged at the collar of his sport jacket after saying that while he didn’t want to commiserate with Perry and Burkett, he made the rare gesture (for him) of wearing a suit as a sign of respect for them as human beings, and explained how in all of his films he’s able to disarm his subjects, even in a film such as “Abyss” where it’s under the gravest of circumstances.


“It’s finding the right tone,” says Herzog. “For example, [Lisa Stotler-Balloun,] the woman who lost her mother and her brother, I think she immediately felt safe with me and she felt safe to speak. But part of me is not a filmmaker anymore but just a human being opposite of her. In a way, I managed to get the deepest things, the best things out of people. That’s why I’m a filmmaker. If you don’t have it in you, you’d better do something else.”


"Into the Abyss" opens in New York at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Los Angeles at the Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood on November 11th.

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