Over the last decade, the storied and prolific German filmmaker Werner Herzog has established himself not only as the intellect behind popular documentaries like Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but also as an entertaining, humorous presence. His soft, aloof voice, prone to leftfield eccentricities, lends itself easily to comedy, as witnessed in the beloved YouTube parody that had a mock-Herzog reading Curious George. Herzog seems aware of this; he’s sent himself up in two mock-documentaries by Zak Penn (Incident at Loch Ness and The Grand), done voicework on The Simpsons and is set to play a villain in the Christopher McQuarrie-Tom Cruise thriller One Shot. As ever, though, it’s easy to laugh at/with him and take him seriously. And he’s arguably never been more serious than with Into the Abyss. His second documentary this year (after Cave), the film examines the wake of a decade-old murder spree in Texas, one of whose perpetrators, Michael Perry, was interviewed soon before his execution. This has led many to call Abyss a film about the death penalty, but Herzog opposes this classification nearly as passionately as he opposes capital punishment. He spoke to PW from his current home in Los Angeles. Read our review of Into the Abyss here.
You usually steer clear of hot button issues. What made you interested in making a film on the death penalty?
“It’s not a film on the death penalty. It’s not an issue film. It’s very much about the urgency of life. It’s very much about families of victims of violent crimes. So, if you expect an issue film it would be disappointing. The film has many other things going on. It’s a violent crime, a senseless violent crime that’s the issue. That’s the story of the film, with all its ramifications. It’s like a true Gothic tapestry, a big epic film on a senseless crime.
You get your objections to capital punishment out of the way early into the film, almost so you can venture into other areas of the subject.
“I don’t make a big fuss about it because I simply respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment. And I do so because my historical background is quite different. Of course, as a German, I wouldn’t want to tell the American people how to handle their criminal justice.”
You actually include subjects who do support capital punishment. Lisa, the sister of one of the victims, talks about going to see Perry’s execution.
“Yes, and she it’s totally convincing how she says a huge weight was off her heart, and she she felt lighter. I then asked her if life in prison without possibility of parole would satisfy her, and she said yes, definitely. But then she paused, and said, ‘Well, some people don’t deserve to live.’ So, she’s still vascilating. Showing her like that, and not trying to manipulate her—that’s the value of the film.”
How did you hear about this case?
“I was looking into a few cases of death row inmates. This one struck me immediately. I knew this one was much more than just a crime. It was the senselessness of it that was so disquieting. And of course, all the ramifications, all the repercussions which were fascinating for me.”
There are a couple moments where people break down and cry, but it’s notable how calm and collected everyone is. Are they perhaps sufficiently removed from the crime?
“They’re not removed. Nobody is removed. The film is very, very intense, and very intense in its emotions. It’s not this kind of vanilla ice cream melting into tears. However, when you listen to, for example, Fred Allen, the man who was the former captain of the execution team, it’s deeply emotional. He’s a very solid man of very solid integrity.”
Michael Perry, though, seems extremely calm, particularly for someone who, when you interviewed him, won’t exist in eight days.
“Well, he thanked me for making him completely oblivious, during some parts of our conversation, that he was on death row. He talked vividly about a canoe trip in the Everglades and the alligators when he was 13. When you look at the footage, when you look at the film, you really sense as if he was free for a moment.”
You’ve said this is not an activist film, and yet it’s being released in the wake of Troy Davis and during the presidential candidacy of Rick Perry.
“It’s a coincidence that it comes into the climate of an intensified debate. It’s good that it comes at this moment. Sometimes these things, they come up and all of a sudden other cases catch the eyes of the general public. And of course we had a year when Republicans had to choose a nominee for the presidential election. Rick Perry is very much in favor of capital punishment—of course, reflecting the mood of his electorate.”
Without getting explicit about it, this film is very much a reflection of Perry’s Texas.
“Yes, but I’m not in the business of Texas-bashing. I like Texas.”
The 7:10PM showing on Friday, Nov. 18th at the Ritz Bourse will be followed by a special appearance and Q&A by Ray Krone, Director of Communication and Training for Witness to Innocence.