A Matter of Life and Death

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Valentina Fung/Staff

Only a bulletproof glass window stands between Werner Herzog and Michael Perry, a 28-year-old death row inmate executed eight days after their interview. But Herzog, perhaps the most humane and methodical filmmaker of our time, is able to break the glass, to penetrate into the soul of a man who is just a symptom of a larger problem and to go “Into the Abyss,” where grown men fear to go.

Documentary and narrative feature filmmaker Werner Herzog needs no introduction. With his latest “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,” a probing exploration of the death penalty in Texas and of humans’ innate capacity for destruction, Herzog takes a step back and lets the camera roll. This film is not about him or his vision, but instead about what has happened.

With its measured narrative rhythm, cutaways to nature and panoply of idiosyncratic interview personalities, “Into the Abyss,” even by virtue of its very title, is pure Herzog. But it also works as true crime saga. Journalistic in its proceedings and nimbly poetic in its post-production elements — including a string score that sounds like a violin’s death cry — the film is an exhaustive account of the 2000 triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas that landed Perry on death row, and his accomplice Jason Burkett in prison for life. Herzog spends most of his time with families and acquaintances of the victims, all of whom remain affected to this day by the events.

Herzog integrates police footage of the 2000 crime scene with his interviews. There are smudges of blood and dirt on a hallway floor, and this is enough to prompt our imaginations. These archival fragments contrast with Errol Morris’ shadowy restaging of crime scenes in his 1988 “The Thin Blue Line,” also a death penalty documentary that Herzog has no doubt seen.

In an interview, Herzog, the gentle German known for eating shoes and dragging steamboats through jungles, said outright, “I’m not a journalist. I don’t have a catalog of questions. I come in and I have no questions at all. But you have to assess the situation. You have to find the right tone instantly because you have 50 minutes and that’s that.” Herzog is referring to his conversation with Michael Perry. Due to prison restrictions, he had precious time with Perry. “I spoke with him in a completely different tone, voice, mood than all the others.”

Herzog said that in the first 10 minutes of his interview with Perry, he told him, “Mr. Perry, even though your childhood was bad and destiny didn’t hand out a good deck of cards to you, that doesn’t exonerate you and it doesn’t mean that I necessarily have to like you.” Herzog said he had to be “absolutely straightforward” with Perry. “In fact, he liked me for that, and I respect him as a human being.” From the outset, Herzog did not want to make a “hero outcast” out of Perry. “I was always under the impression that, yes, the crimes are monstrous,” he said, “but the perpetrators are still human; they’re not monsters.”

For his interview with Perry, Herzog wore a suit. “Although you never see me but they see me, I wear a suit, which I hardly ever wear in my life … I only wear it because I meet a human being who is going to die in eight days.”

When we see the 28-year-old Perry, it’s almost a stretch to imagine he could be capable of such crimes. Shifty-eyed with a chipped tooth and spazzy attention span, he looks like just a boy behind that glass. Three people died by Burkett and Perry’s hands, and allegedly all for a red sports car.

Herzog says he sought to make a “true American gothic. Way beyond the crime (the film) has to do with the families, the people who live in the town … with the urgency of life.” Herzog said that “a very faint distant echo of the presence of God” haunts the film, as all the subjects invoke God.

According to Herzog, there are roughly 400 male inmates on death row in Texas, and there are 10 who are female. “All over America, it’s lethal injection with the exception of Utah, which is sexist,” Herzog claimed. “It’s the only state where you have the choice of lethal injection or a firing squad, but this option is not given to females.” Herzog said if he were a woman, “I would like to command the firing squad: Shoot now.”

Prima facie, “Into the Abyss” is not about the crime. It is a somber polemic against the death penalty, filled with pathos and heart but never sentimentality or piteousness. Surely the film aims to inaugurate dialogue about the death penalty in Texas, a state currently boasting Rick Perry as its token man, but Herzog doesn’t do the heavy-lifting. We already know where he stands.

Herzog is known for imbuing his true-life documentaries with what he calls “ecstatic truth.” This is a way of making the prosaic profound, elevating images of life to the level of cinema. But we don’t see Herzog in this film. We hear his mild, erudite voice from behind the camera, but that is all. What makes “Into the Abyss” a radical departure from latter-day Herzog is how he just seems to let the camera roll, and to let the camera find ecstatic truth where it may.

Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.