"“Thanks to Herzog’s exemplary interviewing skills, it turned what could have simply been just an unsettling documentary, into a fine piece of cinema…”"
There were a host of documentaries featuring at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, and Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life had the privilege to be crowned the best of them all, picking up the Grierson award for best documentary - and deservedly so.
As part of the veteran filmmakers Death Row project, Into the Abyss looks into the life and crimes of Death Row inmate Michael Perry. There’s an exclusive interview with the criminal, as well as his partner-in-crime Jason Burkett (sentenced to life imprisonment), as well as a variety of interviews with the family members of the innocent, murdered victims. The film also features emotional discussions with priests and former prison guards, all of whom have been affected by the merciless law enforcement that is the death penalty.
The treacherous pair murdered a mother, her son and good friend, three innocent victims losing their lives simply because the criminals wanted to steal a car. They are both repentant for their sins, although for Perry, his pending death is imminent, as the film’s primary setting is the week leading up to his execution.
The film is affecting and disquieting, but then again that was always going to be the case given the themes explored, and the premise to the feature. However, thanks to Herzog’s exemplary interviewing skills, it turned what could have simply been just an unsettling documentary, into a fine piece of cinema.
Herzog’s consultations with the films talking heads managed to strike the perfect balance between deferential and considerate, with direct and uncomfortable. Within his interviews he also manages to bring, quite remarkably, a light-hearted approach to proceedings, asking some questions that provoke amusement, if not for the interviewee themselves, then at least for the audience.
Another great skill that Herzog possesses, and one that appears to shine through in the majority of his projects, is the ability to see things from both sides and from different perspectives. He does what any good, established documentary maker does, which is to remain unbiased and impartial, and treat the subject matter naively, so that you feel that what is being represented to the viewer is done so in the most fair way possible, allowing for us to make up our own minds on the matter.
This is most evident in that fact that Herzog manages to make you feel empathetic to everyone portrayed within the film. From the guards to the victims to the criminals, it shows a human side to everyone, and despite disliking the murderers for what they have done, the intelligence and integrity in the making of this film has even given them elements of compassion.
I was wary of the fact that the film is focusing simply on one crime and just two criminals and I had feared that it may become somewhat inane over the course of the feature, but that wasn’t the case at all. The film was cleverly broken up into chapters, looking at the events chronologically, from the initial crimes committed, to the execution.
Also, to help keep the film interesting throughout, it wasn’t centred on Perry as much as I had envisaged. Instead, there were various sub-stories, with an intriguing look into Burkett’s life, with interviews with his father (also in prison for life) and his wife, who somehow, despite her husband’s life imprisonment, is expecting a child. If anything, the story of Perry was used more as a mere example of Death Row, and the iniquitous system.
It’s a fine piece of work from Herzog, collaborating the two key components in a successful documentary, in that it’s intelligently and expertly put together by the maker, and it focuses on a fascinating story and set of events, taking an emotional and distressing look into the captivating world of the death penalty, an area that, at least from the inside, is otherwise scarce in media coverage.
And to truly cement my strong opinion of the feature, I had to watch the film lying down on a terribly comfortable beanie bag (only seat left available). In many cases I would have fallen straight asleep as I tend to do in such restful situations - but fortunately the films intrigue and intensity didn’t allow for that to be the case.