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?
In Perry/Burkett’s case, it was the enormity of the senselessness of the crime which somehow caught my eye and disturbed me deeper than other crimes.
Did you think that they committed the crimes?
It’s not my business to establish guilt or innocence. There are films out there which try, and successfully in some cases, prove the innocence of someone. That’s a wonderful way to do a film, but I’m not into that.
In your statement about the film you said that the question of guilt or innocence, which is usually is front and center in debates on the death penalty, is a secondary issue for you.
Well, guilt and innocence is not even a secondary issue in the film. That is beyond the movie itself. Guilt was established by a court of law and by a jury and there’s not much you can really argue. And the perpetrators do not really have much of an argument, either.
I meant more along the lines of when people debate whether the death penalty is just or not, they point to the fact that innocent people have been executed.
Yes, it’s a horrifying thought and these cases have happened. But in my opinion it’s only a secondary argument. The primary argument is whether a state should be in the capacity to kill off anyone for any reason. And for any reason, I mean what we had in Germany during the Nazi barbaries and not only capital punishment in excess; there was a systematic program of euthanasia, meaning you would be worthless in the eyes of state if you were insane. Also, on top of this, the genocide of six million Jewish people. And what I am saying is not an argument. It’s not a philosophical argument. It is a historical experience. I only have a story. By the way, the most compelling figure in the film, Fred Allen, the former captain of the “tie-down team,” [which is responsible for strapping a prisoner’s body to the death chamber gurney] he doesn’t have an argument either. But he has experience of having done 125 executions.
Do you want the film to be part of the debate about the death penalty in this country?
I knew it would become part of a debate, and I have no problem with it. It is a coincidence that it has come into a moment where through other cases, all of a sudden, the debate was rekindled. But there was no plan for it. For example, Troy Davis came up into the public consciousness after I had finished my film. There was [also] a case from three young men in West Memphis which became highly publicized. So it’s a statistical anomaly that all of a sudden the question that has been lingering is coming up vividly.
And also the fact that Rick Perry is running for President.
Also, yes. We have all noticed that in a public debate with the other Republican hopefuls, he really got the applause for his stance on capital punishment. Which shows that there’s a big amount of support. Let me speak about myself, I have to do it now to avoid misunderstandings. I hope you do not expect from me, as a German, to tell the American people how to handle criminal justice. But at the same time, I make my position known to the inmates and to the warden and in a way also to the public.
In that debate when there was that applause for Rick Perry, did you find that to be a disturbing moment?
For me personally, yes, because I think it’s a question of principle, which every single person has to solve for himself or herself. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s disturbing for me personally. I do not have voting rights. I’m a German citizen. But let me make one thing clear. Perry is, of course, coming from Texas, but I’m not in the business of Texas bashing. As a matter of fact, I really like Texas. And there are wonderful, wonderful specimens from the state of Texas. I’m joking now. Wonderful, wonderful, human beings from Texas, like Fred Allen. Phenomenal, phenomenal men of integrity he is, or for example, a young man [Jared Talbert] who was stabbed with a screwdriver and learned he was an illiterate. And what sort of pride in this man, that he was a working man and he learned how to read and write in prison. I’d be the last into Texas bashing.
What did you learn while you working on the film?
Well I’m not making films to learn anything, but the question is legitimate because indeed I did strangely learn. You see, I had this nonchalant view that small family values were something of Hollywood movies and they had to end up in a happy ending with small family values prevailing. But when you speak to death row inmates, or for example when you speak to the father of Jason Burkett, who is serving a thirty-year sentence, plus a forty-year sentence now, I always ask him how would you raise your children, how should we conduct our lives, we outside. It always comes down to small family values, and I mean serious, serious big time. So that’s something really astonishing and made me very, very alert to look at small family values, even petite bourgeois values, with new eyes.
And second, it didn’t have so much to do with this film, as I made some other films with death row inmates. The inmates are housed at Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, but Polunsky Unit doesn’t have a death house. So they transport them forty-three miles to Huntsville, to Walls Unit. And many of them for a decade or more have never seen the world out there any more. I mean, they see a little stripe of the sky sometimes. And during this transport, the last trip that they make, they see an empty gas station, they see a cow in the field, and one of the inmates with whom I spoke, Hank Skinner [who was schedule to be executed by the state of Texas on November 9 before receiving a last-minute stay], he was transported to the death house actually twice and the second time he got a stay twenty-three minutes before execution. And what he tells me about his last trip, seeing the world there, all of a sudden everything is magnificent. It’s a glorious world out there. And when you do this trip, which I did, actually with a camera, these forty-three miles, it’s very bleak, it’s very forlorn part of Texas. And yet all of a sudden an abandoned gas station is magnificent. What he says. it resonates in me wherever I am looking around. For him this was Israel, it was like the Holy Land. And back to your question, what have I learned, yes, all of a sudden listening to the children down there [outside the hotel] and seeing some roofs here, this is like the Holy Land. Magnificent. Noisy children. It’s just phenomenal.
Why do you think the death penalty is still popular in this country in particular?
It’s a very ancient, deep-rooted form of dealing with criminal justice. And in the case of America, it is part, I believe, of the frontier spirit. The good side of the frontier spirit is, for example, you kind of sort out disputes among men, roll up your sleeves, meet in the parking lot, and have a beer ten minutes later. You see, that’s the beautiful side. The downside of this spirit is capital punishment. And it’s apparently deep inside the human condition and every single, pretty much every single nation in history has practiced it. So it’s nothing particularly American.
Statistics tell us that approval is slightly going down, but of course, it is very popular in states like, for example, Florida. And also apparently very popular in Texas. So legislation can only follow the mood of the general public. It will be around for quite some time. You cannot expect an abrupt end of it.
I wanted to ask you about Conroe, Texas, where the crime took place. It looked like a fairly rough place, parts of it at least.
Conroe is perfectly alright, nothing wrong about Conroe, but you do have a darker side to it. And you do have a darker side to New York City, for example, and you do have a dark side to Munich, where I’m from. There’s nothing wrong about it, but you should not close your eyes to see it.
When I have this chapter, the dark side of Conroe, you know who you are watching? You are watching a man who has learned how to read and write. What a glorious achievement, very admirable, and a young man who was stabbed with a screwdriver and his friend throws him a knife, and he does not pick it up. He looks at the knife, and he does not pick it up because he wants to see his children at night. So the dark side of Conroe isn’t that dark, because there’s such a phenomenal, phenomenally wonderful young man like Jared Tolbert [who was a friend of the perpetrators].
It’s hard to believe that the neighboring town is called Cut and Shoot.
Yes, it’s sounds like a joke. That’s where the perpetrators would hang out. And that’s where they gave joyrides to their friends.
Did you go into the bar you showed in the film?
No, I only saw a photo of it. But next time I’m gonna be around I want to have a beer in this bar. And Jared Talbert, I asked him because he was a regular at the bar. And I said, ‘What happened in this bar?’ And he said, ‘Oh no, nothing.’ And then I say ‘Yeah, but the bartender said some bad things.’ ‘Oh yeah one girl’s throat was cut,’ he said. ‘Her boyfriend was kind of jealous because she hugged another guy.’ This kind of nonchalance is just unbelievable. But I really, really, really like these people there. Jared Tolbert and Fred Allen, the tie-down man. He’s a real national treasure. If you want to know anything about capital punishment talk to him. Just listen to him. And listening to him is particularly wonderful and inspiring because he doesn’t have an argument. He only has a story.
The scene with the chaplain at the beginning of the film was also very emotional.
Yes. But you see, I only get him there by asking him to tell me about an encounter with a squirrel. That’s something you don’t learn in film school, which I never attended.