Into the Abyss: A conversation with filmmaker Werner Herzog

Matt Smith takes part in a roundtable discussion with acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog about his latest documentary Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life…

So. My first ever Q&A. And it’s with a cinematic great. Greeeaaat. No pressure then. So I pack my bags, head off to London with my questions in my back pocket, my head full of dreams.

But you don’t need to care about that. You’re here to read about Werner Herzog. Writer, director, actor. He’s a busy man, working on projects ranging from art installations to starting his own rogue film school as a movie villain. Differing projects that require a lot of talent just to get off the ground, let alone make a success as he has. Even ate his own shoe once. Once that we know of.

I walk in, three questioners already sat down. Bottled water, chairs, the whole nine yards.

Herzog: There’s something frightening and it’s not unique because you see these things happening in civilizations like the United States or Western Europe or Japan. If you go to, for example to Ethiopia, the crimes would be of a different nature, I guess. So it has to do with our kind of civilization.

Okay, so I was late. But here’s the rundown. Herzog was in town to promote his new documentary Into The Abyss: A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death.

The film documents the interviews held between Herzog and a variety of people in the small Texan town of Conroe after a horrific triple homicide over the theft of a red Camaro. Herzog interviews family, friends, acquaintances and even the murderers themselves. It’s a great documentary that takes in the consequences of this terrible crime from all the angles.

Question: Why did you want to make the point at the beginning of the film that you are against capital punishment?

Herzog: Well I am against capital punishment, however the film isn’t an issue film, it’s not an activist film. That’s the last thing I would like to do. And you have to understand I am not an American citizen, I am only a guest in the country. It’s not even an argument I have. It’s the past of Germany, the barbarism, the Nazi time with excessive amounts of capital punishment, with euthanasia parallel to it and then a genocide of six million, so end of story. There’s nobody among my peers in Germany who would be an advocate of capital punishment, it’s unthinkable.

Question: The film talks about the life of the people who are left in the mess that surrounds them. How did you feel about the other people you interviewed in the film who were left with the feelings and emotions?

Herzog: It’s not just who has to go on, for example the young woman who married Burkett [one of the perpetrators, who is currently in prison serving a life sentence]. It was never really planned, it was only when I saw the footage during editing, it wasn’t just about capital punishment and retribution for murders. It’s something that’s mysterious that emerges, the urgency of life. Life is so urgent.

A woman who marries the murderer has to be separated from Burkett with bulletproof glass. Now they’re legally married, they can sit at the same table, they can touch hands and sit at the same table, but of course there’s a guard with them at the same table.

Me: Just off the creative process of making the film -

Herzog: There’s no crazy process.

Me: No no, creative process.

Great. I used my first question to call Werner Herzog a mentalist. Misunderstanding aside, my question was related to Herzog’s choice to leave the main narrative to tell seemingly unrelated stories from around the town.

Me: Did you intend to make the part of the film devoted to the town? I love the way it segues to the guy who got stabbed in the ribs.

One of the stories is of a man who was stabbed in the ribs with a screwdriver. Instead of getting to a doctor, he goes to work.

Herzog: Yes, I wanted to understand the environment; I wanted to understand something about Texas. Which in principal I like, I’m not into Texas-bashing, and this young man is totally heroic. His friend throws a knife at his feet. He’s got the most legitimate case of self-defence and he doesn’t pick up the knife. And also what I find heroic; he learns to read and write in prison. As a grown up young man. It’s a phenomenal achievement, and I really like the young man, you can tell how I connected to him. And really, it has a lot of humour, by the way. The environment, in Conroe Texas, which is just north of Houston, was very fascinating for me.

Question: Can you talk about how the interviews came about in conjunction with other ideas you had?

Herzog: Originally I planned to do Into the Abyss with a variety of death row inmates and it immediately became way too complicated. And the case of Perry and Burkett, it emerged without much planning. It’s something so powerful and intense, that it had to stay a separate, unique story. A big tapestry of a gothic America.

Question: In terms of order, did you already film Into the Abyss and move on to the others?

Herzog: No, it all overlapped, it also overlapped with editing of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and it overlapped with other events. There were quite a few things overlapping, but for me it was easy to keep things separate, for me it was always clear. Into the Abyss is such a huge story that it should be just one film. There wasn’t even another attempt to mix things with it.

Question: Why do you think film is such a good platform to explore this sort of subject?

Herzog: Film has such a strange quality; it allows us to look deep into the heart of humanity. It has a strange quality of illuminating something that’s deep inside of us. And I’m not only speaking of documentaries, it’s the same procedure with feature films. So… why it is like that, I don’t know. I can only say yes, it allows us to look into the abyss.

Question: If I’m right, you’ve said this film isn’t supposed to persuade people one way or the other about capital punishment. Is it possible to change people’s minds, if they’re strongly either way..?

Herzog: It’s probably able only to change basic perspective. Films otherwise are pretty powerless, we shouldn’t overrate them. Capital punishment has to be dealt with on different platforms. Microphones are the right tools. Speakers, parliamentarians, rallies of many people. So that’s gonna bring some change. Of course my attitude to capital punishment is clear, I make it clear without making too much of a fuss.

And I do believe there’s something very clearly subversive about it, that a state under no circumstance should ever be in the capacity to kill anyone, for no reason whatsoever. The only exception would be warfare. But there are pacifists who would even exclude warfare from the possibilities of a state. But there shouldn’t be euthanasia, capital punishment, genocide. Women should not be ordered to go into abortions. States shouldn’t have the capacity to kill anyone. Period.

Me: Linking back to Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Is there a similarity between the two in the way you look into the soul of humanity?

Herzog: It dawned on me…

Me: Was that a conscious decision?

Herzog: No, no. Certainly not. As I said, it all of a sudden dawned on me that Into the Abyss could have been the title of many of my films. And I had a controversy about the title. There were voices that wanted the title The Red Camaro. And I said no, we are not into product placement. We are not advertising a car. It doesn’t mean anything; it’s not evocative at all. So I said this isn’t gonna be the title.

And it suddenly dawned on me it should be Into the Abyss, which is easily acceptable for everyone now. And as I moved away from The Red Camaro as a title I thought at least a dozen of my films could have been called Into the Abyss.

Me: And there’s also the subtitle ‘A Tale Of Life, A Tale Of Death’.

Herzog: It’s almost biblical. It came about as a reflection of what I found. It’s a discovery, somehow… the footage came forcefully at me. And at my editor. And we looked at it and said ‘It’s all about life and it’s about the urgency of life, we have to deal with it.’ Because it’s in the footage, it was never planned. Sometimes mysteriously footage of a film has qualities in it that you haven’t planned that you start to discover.

Question: You say up front you’re not pleading for their particular cases. But did they ever think that was a possibility? That what they said on film would be heard by people involved. Had they seen The Thin Blue Line…?

Herzog: Well that’s an issue film, where the only purpose was ‘get this man off death row because apparently he’s innocent.’ It’s a very legitimate, and by the way a fine film, but it’s a different type of movie, an issue film. In my case, there was no reason to try to exonerate anyone. And the film doesn’t make a deal about guilt or innocence. And in writing, I told everyone, ‘what I’m planning to do is not a platform, it will not serve as a platform to prove your innocence’. For that you have good lawyers and other ways to do it, support groups, innocence projects and it was always clear.

But ever since Perry [the other perpetrator], eight days away from execution, had an ongoing appeal. I did not want to insist on the amount of guilt. For example, there are two confessions from Perry, one taped, that are in so much detail that only the perpetrator could have had that knowledge. And besides, there was a young woman present as an eyewitness. So I did not want to make them look too bad while facing an appeal. You just don’t do it.

I allowed both of them the chance to proclaim their innocence, they both do it and claim the other to be responsible and that they have nothing to do with it. Whether it’s credible or not is up to you. But I give them this kind of voice, without making it the central part of the film.

Question: What did you want the audience to get from the film?

Herzog: I can’t really tell because I’m not making films for… finding a specific reaction. I’m a storyteller. It’s a very disturbing, very disquieting story. It has deep insight into our darkest nature. But I don’t have a programme: ‘That’s what I want to implant into the heart of an audience’.

Question: Did you have any affection and compassion for Perry?

Herzog: No, as I said two minutes into my conversation with Perry, I think I said he had a difficult childhood or something, but it doesn’t exonerate you. And besides, it doesn’t necessarily mean I have to like you. I respected him as a human being, and told him that.

And I told them, everyone describes you as monsters. No, you’re not monsters. The crimes are monstrous, but the perpetrators are always human beings and they remain human beings. And besides, a human being shouldn’t be executed. Period.

I must say, Perry, he looks like a lost kid. It’s totally astonishing. He could be… what’s the film, East of Eden. He could be in the company of James Dean. Good looking kid, lost. And yet I’ve seen many dangerous people in my life. In real life. And I’ve been in very dangerous situations. But according to my instincts, this young man was the most dangerous I’ve ever seen. And it seems to contradict.

Question: What did you see that made you feel that way?

Herzog pauses to think about Perry, a young man who did indeed look lost. Though if you did see him on an American highway hitchhiking, you would have second thoughts about picking him up.

Herzog: Well if you are planning with your buddy, to steal a car from a lady that you like, the car you like. And their plan was to ask to stay overnight with her son. And the plan was to steal the keys and then get up at night, open the garage and just take off. No plan beyond that. Vaguely that they may go to California with this car. And they see the lady home alone baking cookies. And Perry comes up with a plan that it would be easier just to kill her. And then take off with her car. And this kind of spontaneous, senseless violence, it’s something that’s so scary about him.

I must say I have no real clear argument, but knowing the case file so well, one thousand five hundred pages. And crime scene photos, and videos and having read the transcripts of court procedures, which is another thousand or so pages, it gets scarier and scarier. And the film only covers a small amount of that.

Me: Was it difficult being so close, having read these thousands of pages of details about the crime, ensuring the film stayed on the fence? As opposed to making a stand.

Herzog: No, not really. Because doing this film, you have a maximum of fifty minutes, sixty minutes maximum if they’re nice with you, the guards. And you have to function immediately, you have to immediately find the right voice. And you have to perform, you have to deliver.

For example, talking with the chaplain, I had twenty-five minutes. He came to the set tapping his watch going ‘Quick quick, I have to be in the death chamber in thirty minutes.’ And he speaks like a superficial, phony TV preacher. About the beauty of creation and how at the golf course a squirrel or deer looks at him, and a merciful God. And all of a sudden I stop him and I ask him ‘Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.’ And all of a sudden he comes apart. And you look deep into the heart of that man.

There’s something… where… you have limited time, and because of this pressure and this one possibility to do the interview. There’s hardly any footage. Hardly any footage. Everything I filmed is basically in the film. And you don’t make many plans. They come when you’re watching the footage. Then all of a sudden it sinks in.

Me: So it’s almost like letting the film make itself?

Herzog: No, I’m far too organised and conceptually clear in what I’m doing, but things take their own course and you have to be reactive enough to do that. But sometimes things came at the editor and me with so much intensity. I’ve said it before, you won’t be the only ones who will hear it. Both of us started smoking again, so…

At that point we wrapped up. We all got up. I breathed a sigh of relief as my interview came to a close. I thought Werner Herzog may have needed a cigarette, but it turns out he’s doing another interview next door. Like I said, he’s a busy man.

Into the Abyss is released in UK cinemas today. Check out Matt’s review here.

Matt Smith

  • Gabbar Singh

    I think Herzog's "instincts" about Perry were right on. He appears from the first moment to be a classic case of APD (antisocial personality disorder – he is a sociopath). My own feeling is that the film explores the boundaries of "what is a sociopath". There are a number of very messed up folks presented, but Perry clearly stands out as the one who doesn't fit even at