A life-affirming rhapsody on the death penalty

Werner Herzog’s poignant death-penalty documentary avoids didacticism in favour of unalloyed human experience.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
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In September 2011, two events reignited the death-penalty debate in America.

The first came on the seventh of the month at the Republican Presidential Debates in Simi Valley, California. Texas governor Rick Perry was asked by an NBC News correspondent whether he was able to sleep at night, given that his state had executed 234 inmates during his time in office. Before the question was even finished, the audience broke into rapturous applause, cheering the body count.

Two weeks later came the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, who had spent 20 years protesting his innocence on death row for killing a security guard in a parking-lot altercation. Nine former witnesses signed affidavits retracting their original statements and claiming they had been coerced by police into identifying Davis. However, in spite of this, and significant pressure from an array of human-rights groups, the Supreme Court refused to overturn Davis’s death sentence.

Coincidentally, German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life premiered at the Toronto film festival in the weeks between the Californian GOP debate and Davis’s execution. The documentary focuses on three murders that took place in a rural Texas town in 2001, for which Jason Burkett and Michael Perry received a life sentence and the death penalty respectively. Due to the film’s timeliness, it was rushed for a November release and has now landed on UK screens. Yet while Herzog enters the film making no bones about his opposition to capital punishment, he refuses to exploit his tentative subject for his own political purposes.

From the outset, Herzog has clearly gone to great lengths to avoid the sort of manipulative didacticism popularised by Michael Moore that has blighted mainstream documentary for the past decade. Whereas he might have chosen to focus on cases of questionable guilt in order to make his case, Herzog opts for a series of murders which are straightforward and frighteningly trivial in their motivations. Both Perry and Burkett continue to place blame on each other, but according to a local cop, who talks us through the case in the film’s opening minutes, the two young men killed a middle-aged mother and two teenage boys, all in order to steal the woman’s red convertible. Interviewing Perry days before his execution, the victim’s families and the state officials involved in the lethal injections that take place in Texas – an average of around two per month since 2001 – the film offers a sombre meditation on the barbarism which survives in modern civilised society.

Yet there remains in many of these interviews an aching humanity achieved through the plain spectacle of real people talking about deeply affecting moments in their lives. Their candour brings a distinctly life-affirming quality to film, which Herzog comes dangerously close to ruining by his recurring need to put words into the mouths of his subjects.

With his last project, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which explored the Chauvet caves and the ancient pre-historic paintings that adorn their walls, Herzog was free to rhapsodise as much as he liked. He brings a similar compulsion to impose his own poetic meaning onto the images to Into the Abyss. During one of the film’s most heartrending interviews, in which a former state executioner explains the moment he realised he couldn’t continue, Herzog asks ‘Was this the first time when you felt like yourself?’. Needless to say, the interviewee looks rather nonplussed. In moments like this, Herzog comes across like an aloof auteur shamelessly attempting to envelop his subjects into his own poignant conception of events.

While he abstains from narration and never strays from behind the camera, his unmistakable low drawl is a constant and manipulative presence. Similarly his carving of the film into chapters, complete with such melodramatic titles as ‘Time and Emptiness’, feels like a needless framework that only compromises the manifold beauty of the film.

With Into the Abyss, Herzog stays true to his word and doesn’t allow partisan fingerwagging to distance us from the horror of capital punishment. Unfortunately, his heavy-handed poeticising has much the same effect, interrupting the flow of what is an otherwise gripping and unassuming conversation about the shadowy border between justice and revenge, and the inimitable value of human life.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

Watch the trailer for Into the Abyss:

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