I wonder if in 2059 when Jason Burkett - serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for a triple murder and robbery - comes up for parole and gets released, will watch Werner Herzog's 2012 documentary Into The Abyss? Burkett is featured heavily in the film, the case which incarcerated both himself and friend Michael Perry at the centre of Herzog's latest musings over the imminence of death and the 'urgency of life'. Would he watch it with a sense of humility? Would he watch it with his children, grandchildren? Or perhaps he won't even get to see it at all - Werner's impact on him as fleeting as the time he had with him to interview him for this project.
It begins with a crime which happened in the small town of Conroe, Texas in 2001. But this isn't a film about this one crime: it serves as the centre point of a much broader subject Herzog wants to explore, but still he chose this case because of the sheer senselessness of the act, and to illustrate the flimsiness of life. The motive for Jason Burkett and Michael Perry was a car; the price for that was the destruction of three innocent lives. Herzog doesn't sway the angle of the events to elicit a judgement and a response out of the audience (do we think they are guilty, does the evidence stand up?), that's not what this film is about. But I did however find the re-telling of the murders somewhat incoherent. I wanted it laid out to me in clear, concise facts but it had the summation of you already knowing the story in the media and so flits through a few of the key details which I did find distracting. The first murder - of Sandra Stotler in her home whilst she was in the middle of watching TV and baking some cookies - is made absolutely real to us, from police footage from her home at the time, even going as far as to showing how they found her body wrapped up in a duvet in the nearby lake. It's chilling. But the subsequent murders of the two young boys Adam Stolter and Jeremy Davidson are never properly clarified - were they on foot? Were they shot at outside the gates to their community? Did they both live in that housing complex? The majority of information comes from an interview with a police detective who worked on the case and discovered the bodies, but interspersed with this are interviews with the victim's family members, and for me I would have preferred that whole chapter of the film which Herzog calls "The Crime" to have been just that - told in a straight-forward, A to B style. I found splitting the narrative frustrating, and had to look up a lot of details on the Internet afterwards to plug the gaps in my knowledge of events. I found the depth and chronology of Grizzly Man so thorough that extra reading just accompanied the film - here it was lacking. But Herzog doesn't tell things in such a matter of fact way - instead of giving us a factual appraisal of the background, he chooses to observe and that emphasises the angle of the film.
Yet it's interesting how he keeps going back to the case - as well as speaking with both Perry and Burkett (though he never asks them explicitly, "are you guilty?" or "what is your take on the events that happened that night?" It is widely implicated that they both think they are innocent - culpable yes, they were there, but they did not pull the trigger and kill those people - they both blame each other) Herzog also speaks to Burkett's father - also in prison - his wife and expectant mother of their first child, who started off as his defence attorney, and people in the town who knew the two men, as well as the victim's families. But instead of quizzing them about the case Herzog is much more interested in their reactions to loss and how they have coped with bereavement, and whether they believe death justifies death. The sister of Adam Stotler, Lisa, proves to be one of the most compelling subjects: her horrific list of family tragedies alone makes you hang on her every word.
Herzog's interviews with the two inmates are very interesting in their difference: Burkett, given a life sentence due to his father's impassioned plea at his trial, seems low-key and reserved in his responses, portraying a weary and self-reflective character. Perry on the other hand - sentenced to death, with his execution taking place 8 days after filming and so speaking posthumously - is cheerful, upbeat and confident in his innocence and in his faith in God. Lisa Stotler remarks wryly how, in his last words before the lethal injection was given, he forgives them all for what they have done: "what we have done," she muses. He takes no responsibility for what he has done to her and her family. It's interesting to note Herzog has said in interviews afterwards that Perry: "looked like a lost kid...but I think he was the most dangerous."
For me the most disquieting sequence was the interview with Fred Allen, a former worker in the execution chamber, and what happens at the Death House, the last place an inmate goes before his death. Allen is retired, so even though the film transpires through Perry's last few days, execution and aftermath, we do not hear in detail about his last few hours from Allen, only his accounts of over 125 other deaths that he witnessed before he just cracked. You think to yourself - how do people end up in this job? I didn't even think about this job existing and it's unthinkable to imagine doing it. Scenes of the execution room, and the gurney, are also deeply uncomfortable to watch - one cannot help but imagine you, being taken to that room and strapped down to the bed, with the knowledge that in a few minutes you are about to die.
Unquestionably a heavy film to watch, and Herzog's best since the aforementioned Grizzly Man - it is when he is exploring the characters and actions of people when he is at his best. Here, he manages to ask the exact questions that will give him the fullest and most emotional response from his interviewees without probing or interrogating - he has such a reassuring and gentle manner that he is invaluable today with his astonishing documentaries. He makes no bones about being against capital punishment himself but he does not judge nor coerce others into opinion, he just invites them to speak and picks up insights along the way which help open them out to us, and him, as people - the squirrel question is one that you will remember. It's a discerning film which stimulates debate afterwards and is particularly interesting for someone like myself who lives outside of the US so doesn't have the same normalcy and desensitised attitude towards the death penalty.
Herzog does spend the bulk of the film on the events in Conroe in 2001, and I wish he had either chosen to make this documentary all about this case, or all about death row - it meanders slightly which makes it less gripping. It feels stretched - yet each part individually was so intense to watch. His excellent "spin off" series to this which involves more confrontations with inmates, Death Row, is still available to watch on 4oD and I urge you to do so as it explores further what it means to be looking straight into the abyss of death.
Affecting but just shy of powerful - it doesn't have that one moment that stays with you, but it's definitely a subject and a viewpoint expertly and curiously explored and gets you thinking. Into The Abyss well worth a look and it's Herzog back on bold, engaging form.