I like the perverse sense of humor, the curiosity about human behavior, that pervades Werner Herzog’s documentaries. Think especially of Grizzly Man (2005) and Encounters at the End at the World (2007). There’s little humor in Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life (2011), about a triple murder in Texas and the people involved—killers, victims, survivors. Much of the film consists of interviews with two men convicted of the crime, one of them on death row. Other sections focus on relatives of the victims and law enforcement officers who investigated the murders.
One could view this film as an anti-capital punishment film, and in fact Herzog makes clear his opposition to capital punishment during an early conversation with convicted murderer Michael Perry on death row. But Herzog is really more generally interested in the circumstances of the crime and those who committed and were affected by it. He's interested in human situations here, not moral positions. He shows little sympathy for the murderers, especially Perry.
The murderers are articulate and apparently introspective. Condemned killer Perry is by my standards clearly a psychopath. He convincingly presents himself as a reformed sinner, a Christian ready to meet his maker. But a wary look behind his eyes, a cagey sense of distance, hints that he’s assessing the effect of his story on the interviewer. He never apologizes or expresses remorse for his crimes, and in fact his last statement before his execution is to forgive the family of his victims for “the atrocity” they are about to inflict on him. His partner Jason Burkett is more convincing. Herzog also pays considerable attention to the father of Jason Burkett, also in prison for an unrelated crime.
All three of these individuals insist they they’ve changed their lives. The Burketts repeatedly express remorse for the suffering they’ve caused. The brother of one of the victims feels guilt over having introduced his brother to his murderers. Everyone feels guilt. Ten years later the crime remains alive and painful for the relatives of the victims. One point seems to be that no one’s really changed by the practice of capital punishment. One victim’s sister feels better after witnessing Perry’s death, but the three victims remain dead, and the facts of the crime haven’t changed. If revenge is the purpose of the death penalty, Herzog asks, is it worth the price?
Herzog’s interests in human character are evident here: in the conflicted emotions of a prison worker who assisted with executions for thirty years—he’s come to believe the capital punishment is wrong. And in the somewhat disturbing character of Melyssa Burkett, Jason’s wife—they met by correspondence after imprisonment, and later marry. The look on her face the first time she’s interviewed suggests she’s happy to be receiving public attention. She’s pregnant, she claims by Burkett, though they’ve never touched.
More than an argument against capital punishment, Into the Abyss explores the dark potentials of human character and experience, of chance, environment, fate.