Werner Herzog’s new film, Into The Abyss, opens with a shot of the Reverend Fred Lopez, chaplain of the “death house,” in Huntsville, Texas, standing in front of a field of crosses in a cemetery. There are no names on the concrete crosses, just numbers, signifying those who have been executed by the state of Texas. Herzog interviews Lopez an hour before he’s set to preside over yet another execution. “Why does god allow capital punishment?” Herzog asks Lopez. “I don’t know the answer,” Lopez responds.
Into The Abyss tells the story of a triple homicide that occurred ten years ago in Conroe, Texas, when a plan by two teenagers—Michael James Perry and Jason Burkett—to steal a red Chevy Camaro went horribly awry. Perry and Burkett were both convicted, and Perry was executed eight days after Herzog interviewed him. Though Herzog never says whether they committed the crimes, the evidence presented strongly points to their guilt. Innocence and guilt, however, is a secondary issue for Herzog when considering the morality of capital punishment. “A State should not be allowed – under any circumstance – to execute anyone for any reason,” he says. “End of story.”
Yet Herzog’s film is not a polemic, nor what he disparagingly refers to as an “issue film.” It’s about the impact of violent crime—whether carried out by Perry and Burkett or the state—on the perpetrators, the victims’ families, the broader community and the criminal justice system. The film is more understated than many of Herzog’s past films—using sparse written narration instead of the typically dramatic Herzogian voiceovers—and imbued with empathy for all of the different characters. You’re left with the sense that the murders were horrific, but so too is the death penalty as a form of punishment.
Herzog’s film, which debuts on November 11 in New York and Los Angeles, opens at a time when debate over capital punishment has taken on renewed prominence in this country. The execution of likely innocent prisoners such as Cameron Todd Willingham and Troy Davis has captured national headlines and underscored the flaws in our criminal justice system. Though the death penalty is still favored by a majority of Americans, support is at its lowest levels since 1972. Viewed against this backdrop, Into The Abyss makes for powerful viewing.
I interviewed Herzog about his film and its surrounding issues last week in New York.
This film seems a little bit different than the previous films that you’ve made.
Herzog: Not really though.
You don’t think so?
It dawned on me that Into The Abyss could have been the title of many of my films. It’s always this vertical look, trying to look deep inside the human condition.
How did you get interested in this particular story?
I was always fascinated. In particular, of course, death row inmates differ from us in one aspect: We do not know when we will die and we do not know how we will die, but they know. And it’s very fascinating to talk to these people about life, about time, about the passage of time, dreams, or all sorts of things.
And why did you choose to focus on this particular case?