Into the Abyss (2011) – Werner Herzog (Dir.), Jason Burkett, Michael Perry
There is a gentleman in the world, by the name of Werner Herzog, who has thoughts on things. Many, many thoughts. Now, I don’t mean that any of these things are either coherent or fundamentally sensical. Nor are they particularly clear or penetrable by anybody other than the director himself. Still, he has them. Not content to remain tied down by the constraints of narrative structure and plot, he has recently bled into the world of documentary filmmaking. For some odd reason, only these films in his extensive filmography are available on Netflix. Therefore it’s all we have with which to deal.
This is the man who filmed a movie about a bunch of guys carrying a boat over a mountain range. This is a man who threatened his muse and leading man Klaus Kinsky at gunpoint while lost in the jungle filming Aguirra Wrath of God. This is a man who managed to out-crazy Nicolas Cage, a feat only ever attempted, and failed, by Tom Cruise. Nicolas Cage, you know, Ghost Rider. You know, that movie so insane they cast Nicolas Cage. You know, the guy so crazy he played Ghost… Wait. I got lost for a second.
One might call Herzog insane. I call him German.
Into the Abyss is the tale of two men in Texas who murdered a woman, her son and another man, in order to steal her Camero. One was sentenced to life-imprisoment, the other death. Herzog interviews the relatives of the victims, the men themselves and other people in the town. That’s about it. There is no voiceover, no title cards other than delineating, overly-dramatic, depressing-as-a-kitten-firing-squad segment shifts. It was one of the most chilling films I have ever witnessed. Why? I have no goddamned idea.
It’s driving me crazy.
Anyone who has seen of Herzog’s other work will know that he’s about as hands off Eliot Spitzer in a whorehouse. His fingerprints clutter almost every frame, pushing the audience towards thoughts and concepts. He interviews everyone, his voice clear and unmistakeable. Never on camera, he reverberates through the film like a specter, an omniscient skeletal overlord, some kind of anti-deity, infected with a voice so painfully German, it would make Hitler Youth uncomfortable. His questions range from the inane (“What did he look like? What do his hands look like?”) to the unquestionably deep and disturbing (“What did it feel like to be stabbed through the chest? Why do you think you find relief in another man’s death?”). At first, like Guy Maddin, you believe you’re being led through this thing, a goat on a leash, dragged down the corridor of enlightenment. You can choose to buck or walk. Or chew everything in your path, no matter whether or not it’s edible (not sure where this metaphor is going…). But, at second, it’s clear that Herzog isn’t interested in a didactic end. No solution is necessarily put forth, other than perhaps ‘corporal punishment should be abolished.’ That wasn’t even the point. Herzog is examining a single human narrative, a web of emotion and decaying humanity lost within this podunk town. He’s like an existential detective…who isn’t really looking for anything, just wandering around and assaulting people with a camera and German accent. He meanders through these people, a scary, Scandinavian version of that scene from Ghost… with less Whoopi Goldberg and more senseless violence.
What does he discover? I’m not entirely sure. Is it the tale of a town caked in violence and malice? Is it a population wallowing in their own, cripplingly impenetrable denial? Is it the story of two people believing that a car they knew they’d never be able to keep was of more value than the lives of three human beings? Is it the ritual of execution, its inane complexity and rigidness directly contradicting its brutal nature? You sit there, on the edge of your seat, your eyes drinking every sorrowful image, every Texan-twinged, deluded word trickling into your ears, waiting for Herzog to stand up and declare something, anything. And yet he doesn’t. On the one hand we have a man, Jason Burkett, who, having confessed to the crime and allowing his convicted father testify on his behalf, was allowed to live, talking into the camera using a close approximation of what could be construed as remorse. And on the other hand, we have Perry, a man whose psyche is so warped, it gives Moebius a run for his infinitely looping money. The man blathers on about being innocent, his conviction so concrete a jackhammer couldn’t break it, while charging into a tale about being attacked by monkeys in the Everglades. What the fuck?
But it’s not just the two murderers. This is a pastiche of mental rabidity. A score of characters parade their way across the screen, from a man who has nonchalantly come close enough to death, you’d think he was a character in a Bergman film, to a woman who smuggles out a convict’s sperm to ‘artificially inseminate’ herself. What the fuck? Herzog paints the town as a veritable Silent Hill, a suburban, hickish existence of such mind-fuckery that you imagine it as the hell in which you wake after the Reckoning. It even comes equipped with its own immortals. A man describes how he was impaled under the arm with a one-foot philips head screwdriver. Not only did he survive, but the guy walked it the fuck off. To give you a little perspective, under the arm is where Aragorn specifically tells the Elves of Galadriel to stab the Uruk Hai. Did you even see those bastards? They’re like if every bully from high school drank Gremlin/Hulk juice. This guy survived something that would have killed them. Like a boss. He mentions that “a little blood came. And some puss. But I had to be at work in 30 minutes.” Blood is one thing. Puss? I see puss, you will see me shit myself. Who is this guy, Wolverine?
But he’s only the tip the iceberg. In a juxtaposition so insane it has to be true, Herzog interviews both Burkett, one of the murderers, and his wife. She discovered him while working on his case and fell madly in love with the man before even meeting him. As the world is crumbling around her, men sentenced to death, people stabbing one another, petty crime launched into the lap of thoughtless brutality, she talks about a rainbow appearing the moment she met Burkett. A rainbow. A rainbow? Was it soaked in the blood and tears of the innocent? Was it the collective hopelessness of a people driven mad, desperately trying to escape the masochistic boundaries of their pitiful lives by way of refracting light? Or just a rainbow? Either way, bitch is crazy. Now, that’s not a phrase I toss about willy nilly (unlike, for example, the word ‘willy’…tee hee). When she fell in love with a convicted, confessed murderer, that’s one thing. When she married him, though he wouldn’t be free for another forty years, that’s fine. When she smuggles out of jail a vial of his sperm to impregnate herself? Lady is riding the batshit-mobile to fucked-uptonville.
The insanity aside, there are normal humans at the fringe of this tale. Constantly we are met with the surviving sister/daughter of two of the victims, a woman so obliterated by the murders that her entire life has been held hostage. Throughout all of the heartbreak, she ended up there on the day Perry was executed, front and center. As he walked in the room she said ‘he was just a boy’. No monsters. No demons. No Satans taken to Earth. Simply a boy. As the lethal injection was administered, he forgave them for what they were going to do. He forgave them. When he finally passed, when his pulse was taken and the examiners called it, the victim said a “weight was lifted”. Because, sometimes “there are people who just don’t deserve to live.”
There are no demons. Only people. That’s a far more terrifying prospect. To be confronted with an otherish being, a fabrication of the imagination or a creature from nefarious beginnings and murderous ends, is to fight something unlike us. People is us. We are people. These boys simply took a logical leap that left three humans dead. They saw a car. They wanted the car. They killed three people and took the car. From a mathematical point of view, that makes shockingly simple sense. All that occurred was the natural extension of a primal urge. Is it that easy for the rest of us? For anyone?
One of the men interviewed used to be in charge of the execution protocol for the State of Texas. He describes, in detail, the agonizingly specific and intricate dealings with an inmate’s final days. It’s a job. It’s a process. The same thing, day in, day out. The mass production of legalized human murder. It wasn’t until he put under his only ever woman, her final words ‘Thank you’ following him every step of the way, that he finally lost the stomach for the work.
As the film leaves, having successfully hollowed out your chest cavity, spraying your innards across the bedroom floor, examining each and every piece that makes you you and declaring a resounding ‘whatever’ before turning and fucking off, there is a final thought. The guard in charge of murdering the inmates mentions you must ‘live your dash’. Every tombstone has two pieces of information, a date of birth and a date of death. That dash between the two is it. Your life. The entire thing. Life isn’t short, as Dwight Schrute would say, it’s the longest thing you do. And there it is, reduced to a measly piece of second-hand punctuation. It doesn’t even have the reverence to be something complex like an ampersand or an interobang. Just a line, curved on both ends (depending on the font), and nothing more. That’s it.
I don’t know why Werner Herzog took an interest in these peoples’ stories. I don’t know why he made this film. I don’t know why any of it is the way that it is. Maybe he’s crazy. Maybe he’s German. Maybe he just knows the punchline to some joke I just haven’t gotten far enough to get. One day I’ll get it. Maybe.