Last week I had the opportunity to see Werner Herzog’s much anticipated documentary Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life at its UK premiere at the London Film Festival. I am a great fan of Herzog’s work and I recognise that one key to the success of his films is his presence as a personality.
In Grizzly Man Herzog’s own opinion (put across via voice over) plays counterpoint to the outlook of Timothy Treadwell, the films main character. While Treadwell’s story is fascinating it would be much less interesting without Herzog’s idiosyncratic narration. As an audience we have come to expect Herzog to feature as a key character in his documentaries (as he did in Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams). This is where Into the Abyss differs.
Into the Abyss tells the tale of a triple homicide in Texas, 2001 which lead to one perpetrator, Michael Perry receiving the death penalty and the other, Jason Burkett, a life sentence. The victims’ families feature prominently as part of Herzog’s investigation, as do a number of other figures including an ex-death house team leader, a death row chaplain and the officers who worked on the case. Herzog’s collection of interview subjects and his interview style successfully gain crucial insight into the crime as well as exploring the overall nature of the death penalty.
Herzog’s approach to this sobering subject is always respectful. His dignified approach is evident in his decision not to use voice over narration as normal, opting for title cards and subtitles to offer key information. Herzog does not want to distract the audience with his own personality and this allows us to focus on the characters whose lives were affected by the initial murders, as well as Michael Perry’s impending execution.
Instead what we are left with is an exploration of a crime that delves deep into the issue of whether it can ever be considered right to take another life. It is a film that does not judge its characters, but it does judge the choices and actions that are made by individuals as well as institutions. Into the Abyss is a tasteful study of a difficult subject which remains sensitive at all times without pulling any punches. It is perhaps the best work of Herzog’s recent, outstanding group of documentaries.