Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life to use its full title does stand out in the works of director Werner Herzog. It lacks the usual focus on the bizarre and unexpected, but the persistent exploration of the human condition makes this the best documentaries of the year so far.
Werner Herzog documents the final week in the life of Michael Perry, a man who’s been on death row since he committed a triple homicide in 2001 in order to steal a car. Herzog also documents Perry’s partner in crime Jason Burkett, who is serving a life sentence, and also the convict’s and victim’s family members who are still understandably traumatised by what happened over ten years ago.
What is quite startling is that while Perry and Burkett are murderers, and are laying bare to Herzog their motives behind what they did, they are still the least interesting people who are interviewed. The real and genuinely emotional insights come from the likes of one of the victim’s sister, who has suffered so much loss in her life that she fears getting too close to someone just in case she loses them too. The interview with the ex-death row guard who quit in the year 2000 despite losing his pension is a harrowing example of how death affects a person.
Herzog is certainly someone who doesn’t let little details pass by. He still enjoys listening to people’s odd anecdotes, but his passionate humanism is what wins the day. He looks and probes into areas of his interviewee’s lives that other people wouldn’t, and he gets better results from doing it. He makes it clear early on that he is opposed to the death penalty, but still doesn’t attempt to defend those who have been convicted. In fact during the first meeting with Michael Perry, Herzog honestly explains to him that while he doesn’t think he should die for what he did, under no circumstances will he like him. Herzog’s honesty does shock Perry ever so slightly, but it’s that honesty that woos people into being completely honest with him.
It certainly knows how to pack an emotional punch. The crime scene video which documents the bloody scene at the victim’s home, and the well edited shots of the dumped bodies are more powerful because of their subtlety, and the score from Mark Degli Antoni even adds a little hint of terror. This is not an investigative documentary in the sense we come to expect. It doesn’t focus on the crime itself or make some attempt to uncover some hidden truth. We know what the truth is, we don’t need it probed. But Herzog’s devotion and fascination with the human condition is the real driving force of this film, and what makes it so devastatingly compelling.
Accompanying the screening of Into The Abyss at the Cornerhouse in Manchester was a short film entitled MES, as part of the Virgin Media Shorts Competition. MES is a short documentary about a woman struggling to cope with suffering from musical ear syndrome. It was the perfect accompaniment to a Herzog documentary – unique, and incredibly personal.
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Video reproduced from YouTube / makingof
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