Werner Herzog’s Dark Journey ‘Into the Abyss’

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CHICAGO – Through both his fictional and documentary work, Werner Herzog has long been interested in the workings of the natural world and our place in it. His new film, “Into the Abyss,” may at first seem like a departure from those themes but it centers on a subject that defies the natural world and order – the taking of another life. Easily one of the best documentaries of the year, this riveting, haunting piece of work fits perfectly into Herzog’s resume as one of our most important living filmmakers.

Whereas most documentarians would take their strong stance on a controversial issue like the death penalty and use their skill to support and defend it, Werner Herzog does something truly daring with “Into the Abyss” by showing how it’s never quite that simple. Political bodies like to try and break down each side of the death penalty debate into pure black and white. We live in a two-party society that likes to simplify. You’re either for it or you’re against it and there’s little common ground.

Into the Abyss
Into the Abyss
Photo credit: IFC Films

“Into the Abyss” is a film made by someone staunchly against the death penalty that focuses more on the people impacted by a brutal murder spree than the man about to be sent to the chamber. Herzog makes his stance well-known up front through interview questions and statements, but he goes on to make a film sympathetic to everyone involved and dedicates it to the victims of murder. He doesn’t demonize the system. He doesn’t demonize the executioner. He doesn’t demonize those who would say someone doesn’t deserve to live. He relates to all of these people and then STILL says that the death penalty is wrong. It’s daring, riveting, and emotional filmmaking and perhaps the best non-fiction work on the impact of crime since “Paradise Lost.”

Conroe, Texas is a dark corner of the Earth. It is an unusual place with a wide gap of haves and have-nots and Herzog is clearly interested in the way environment has impact the latter. He shoots a number of shots of dilapidated buildings, broken-down mobile homes, birds on a landfill, etc. He’s not excusing the killers who came from this hopeless world but he does take the all-important time to fill in the dots of criminal fathers, lack of support structure, cycle of violence, and heavy drug use that often leads to these horrific situations.

The one-and-only crime of “Into the Abyss” is a truly disturbing one. Two teenagers, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, wanted to steal Sandra Stotler’s car. They broke into her house, killed her, and dumped her body in a nearby lake. When they got back to Stotler’s gated community, the gates were closed, so they waited for her son and his friend and killed them too to gain access. Not long after, they were involved in an intense shoot-out (that Herzog seems almost thrilled to talk about given how much it sounds like it’s out of a Bruce Willis movie…he’s fascinated by the report that someone yelled “balls to the wall”) and the two boys were arrested.

Into the Abyss
Into the Abyss
Photo credit: IFC Films

Testimony from Burkett’s lifelong-criminal father saved his life but Perry went to death row. It is nine years later, and when Herzog speaks to Perry, he has eight days left to live. Both men are in serious denial of their crimes – blaming the other one and claiming little to no knowledge of the murders – but Herzog doesn’t focus on that at all. In fact, it’s only revealed through asides as a part of other conversations and one imagines that both young men professed their innocence repeatedly during the interviews and Herzog cut those moments out.

Why? Because this is not a movie about guilt or innocence. Three people died in Conroe, Texas – does that give the government the right to take another life? If there’s anything unusual about “Into the Abyss” as to how it fits in to Herzog’s filmography, it’s that the film consists so heavily of interviews. We spend large chunks of time with everyone involved, along with riveting conversations with a death row chaplain and a former executioner (who may be the most interesting interview subject of the year in any doc). There are choices that feel like Herzog – lingering on crime scene footage that reveals that Stotler was baking cookies when she was killed, including conversation on how a tree grew through her impounded car, his fascination with an encounter with a squirrel and a Perry Outward Bound trip, etc. – but the film really belongs to the people.

And they’re people you won’t soon forget. I’m haunted by the face of Sandra Stotler’s daughter, a woman who lost her mother and brother in such a devastating way that she was never the same. Herzog clearly feels deeply for this woman and yet he never wavers in his opinion on the death penalty. Those against capital punishment are often portrayed as unsympathetic to the victims. Werner Herzog has made an amazing document of how that is simply untrue.

“Into the Abyss” was directed by Werner Herzog and opens in Chicago on November 11, 2011.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

ziggy one of the best's picture


Man this documentarian by the name of Werner Herzog doesn’t pursue the complex pro and con of capital punishment to my liking but at least the convicted murderer Michael Perry was executed.

Elle's picture

I absolutely loved this

I absolutely loved this documentary. It touches me more deeply with each viewing. I believe multiple viewings are necessary to fully comprehend each aspect and tribulations throughout. I used to callously believe certain convicted murderers should be put down no matter what…but Mr. Herzog changed my opinion. I felt for these people, all the people, in this captivating documentary of sorts. I only wish it couldve premiered sooner to when it was shot. Its just premiering on the ID channel in 2012 and Michael Perry was executed in 2010. I felt sorrow when I heard that. I’m not excusing criminals or saying anyone is innocent, thats not my place to decide those things. But I believe there are certain cyclical factors that contribute to the inevitable angst of certain poverty stricken youth…factors that only a handful of people could understand, if they have been through it themselves. It costs 2.3 million to complete a death row conviction and execution, which is 3 times the amount it costs to house a convict for 40 years. Although money shouldnt ben an issue when dealing with a human life, I just wish in a way that this one couldve been saved. After reading Michael Perrys history and life prior to the crimes, all I can be is sad for him. I understand it because my life was similar to how his was. I think only people who have been thorugh it can understand…empathizing is not understanding. I could go on forever about my feelings on this breath taking documentary, but I wont continue to ramble. See it for yourself and develop your own opinions, but develop thos opinions after learning all the facts, even the ones that arent mentioned by Mr. Herzog. The other facts are attainable through self curiousity and I think they are important to developing an opinion fully.

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