Saturday, August 25, 2012

Into the Abyss: 30% Review, 70% Love Letter to Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog. I want that name to appear in the title of this review, because knowing that Herzog is involved will tell you a lot about the form, and a bit about the content, of Into the Abyss. In his documentaries and features, the German auteur/existential nihilist/madman does not blink. His unrelenting contemplation, demonstrated through shots that linger several beats too long, forces his audience to contemplate too. There's nowhere to hide when you're watching Herzog.

Into the Abyss takes as its subject the death penalty. Sort of. It's also about a triple homicide in a tiny town in Texas (oh, how I like to imagine Herzog ordering breakfast at a diner in Conroe), the nature of grief, and the haphazardness of life. It's always difficult to make a convicted murderer the subject of a documentary or film and not, intentionally or un, elide the victims. There is an empathetic impulse inherent in centering art on a human being, whether the treatment of the prisoner is sympathetic (like in the Paradise Lost trilogy) or not. Dead Man Walking, based on a true story, tried to address this imbalance by cinematically resurrecting the teenaged victims of Matthew Poncelet as silent witnesses to his execution. Paradise Lost consistently returns to footage and photographs of the three murdered boys' mutilated bodies.

Herzog, perhaps unsurprisingly considering his well-documented musings on the omnipresence and omnipotence of death, takes as a given the absence of the three victims and instead immerses himself in the families and friends they left behind. His unambiguously stated opposition to the death penalty is secondary to his interest in how people continue living after such traumatic and violent loss. And, in the course of this investigation, for no other reason I can reckon besides that he's Werner Herzog, he captures on film a group consisting of who must be the most fascinating and strange people in East Texas.

And that minor miracle is what really struck me about this film. Into the Abyss is important and interesting because of what it has to say about law and order (ka-chung!), but even more so, it reminded me of what I love so dearly about Herzog. Because it's not a miracle, actually, that the people associated with this crime and the Texas penal system are fascinating. Actually, what Herzog reminds us, is that all people are fascinating and strange, if you let them be. Herzog doesn't look away and he doesn't go anywhere during his interviews, and so we get the moment where the death row chaplain breaks down after recalling what an encounter with two squirrels and a golf cart taught him about the preciousness of life. We get Michael Perry, the death row inmate, relating an Outward Bound experience where he thought he would be killed by alligators. We get an acquaintance of one of the convicts, in the course of telling his story, reveal how he became literate--a personal detail that has nothing to do with the film's ostensible subject, but that Herzog pounces upon with delight and admiration.

And that's the minor miracle of Herzog. Despite his commitment to not denying the abyss, and despite his articulated philosophy of the futility of existence, his subject is always, as he titles the sixth section of this film, the urgency of life.

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