Into the Abyss

It’s been a busy year for Werner Herzog. Early on he had one documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, still spelunking its way through a limited theatrical release; then later a public reading of Adam Mansbach’s fake children’s book, Go the Fuck to Sleep, going viral on line; and now another nonfiction film, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, sneaking in to select art houses just before the 2011 Oscar-contention deadline.

Maybe he’s a little overextended? This last effort doesn’t seem like the director at his documentary best — in, say, Grizzly Man territory — although it still is rewardingly Herzogian. You’ll notice that title is a mouthful, and maybe a tad pretentious by the vernacular standards of the new movie’s handful of small-town Texas interviewees. Some degree of cognitive dissonance seems like the standard Herzog touch; it’s all so serious, it’s almost funny. Almost. Not even two minutes in, while standing in a cemetery full of nameless graves with a death-chamber chaplain, he asks, “Why does God allow capital punishment?”

The chaplain doesn’t know. He talks about golfing and squirrels. “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel,” Herzog says. The chaplain chokes up. “Life is precious,” he eventually concludes, “whether it’s a squirrel or a human being.” The moment is weirdly disarming, and probably the aptest possible overture to a little film about how three Texans once died for a stolen Camaro — or four if you count the guy who got the lethal injection.

Herzog finds his way to the pair of young men who went to prison for that 2001 triple homicide, one for life, the other until being executed just a few days after the filmmaker spoke with him last year. Each offers a different story of the crime, mostly denying or deferring responsibility. Each seems disquietingly like someone you might know.

More testimony comes in from shattered surviving members of the victims’ families, the detective whose case it was, the guilt-wracked incarcerated father of one of the killers, a bright-eyed pen-pal bride, and even a haunted former executioner who had to give up his job. The film starts to look like an affectingly forlorn group portrait. Accumulating details, Herzog also incorporates some chilling crime-scene video — blood spattered on the wall, cookies ready for the oven — but his procedure is not explicitly evidentiary.

Nor is it entirely argumentative, even regardless of his unabashed certainty about the wrongness of the death penalty. For all his lofty conceptual erudition, Herzog is no snob. He’s not puffing himself up here as some investigative crusader. He’s not even narrating this time, instead relying on whatever eloquence emerges from his gently coaxing, conversational interviews. (Sometimes that eloquence takes the form of silence.) He challenges nearly everyone he talks to, but never by talking down to them. Accordingly his film is full of pity — for them, and by extension for all of us.

In lieu of advocacy, Into the Abyss offers the reflective surface of its maker’s personality. Commendably it obviates sensationalism with plainspoken inquisitiveness. But is that enough? Herzog’s structural spareness leaves enough room for viewers to reflect not just on the troubling human impulse to premeditate violent death, but also on all the TV news magazines and other films that have charged through this general philosophical ground before.

Krzysztof Kieślowski did it about as well as it can be done in 1988’s A Short Film About Killing, derived from his extraordinary “Decalogue” series dramatizing the Ten Commandments. That wasn’t a documentary, but it was a devastating milestone for a filmmaker who’d cut his teeth in documentary and then gave it up because he found greater potential for truthfulness in fiction than in fact.

In Herzog’s case, it’s as though he’s thought everything through except the question of what more motion pictures possibly can add to our consideration of capital punishment. He needn’t strive to compete with his forebears, necessarily, but he should realize that his audience might want something substantive enough to feel like more than a year’s-end afterthought. Just as he does realize that there’s a difference between impossible questions and rhetorical ones. “Why did they die?” Herzog asks, importantly, because he really wants to know.