Adam Hollingworth casts a satirical eye over Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life...
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a place called Bavaria. And in Bavaria, there was born many moons ago a strange boy called Werner Herzog.
You may ask yourself why Werner Herzog was such a strange boy. Well, there were in fact many things about little Werner that set him aside from the other boys in Bavaria. First, there was his voice: a lilting, soothing and hypnotic emitter of dulcet tones that could induce even the jolliest individual into a sudden, dreadful depression. Next, there was his mind, a mind so warped that it stretched into the darkest recesses of the mortal world…but more on this later. Finally, there were his eyes: black, soulless, vacant beady eyes that, one supposed, had seen into the heart of darkness. And we all know what is said about those who stare for too long into the abyss…
Werner was a madman, but in all madness lies method, and the method of Werner’s madness lay in his life: the life of a madman. At the age of five Werner Herzog designed a hat made entirely out of goat’s cheese, and sailed on this hat into the heart of the Amazon jungle: a place he would return to as an adult accompanied by an army of conquistadors and some monkeys to make the film Aguirre, Wrath of God. At the age of twelve Werner Herzog travelled to Mexico to seek his fortune as a lion tamer, but failed in the attempt after an unfortunate accident involving a wooden chair, a cannon and a nunnery. At the age of fifteen, Werner Herzog managed to cross the Grand Canyon on a tightrope made entirely out of human spittle, but was disqualified from the Book of World Records when it was found out that he had lubricated the tightrope and the soles of his feet with the filling from a Cadburys Crème Egg: the stickiest substance known to man, which it is reckoned owes its existence to a tragic cooking atrocity involving Werner Herzog, a coop full of chickens, and a family of migrant sugar cane workers.
Werner wasn’t always alone: at one point in time he had a friend called Klaus, with whom he shared many great adventures, one of which even saw them drag a ship over a mountain so that a tribe of vicious pygmies could listen to Turandot. Yet Klaus was if anything even crazier than Werner and most of their adventures saw them lead each other ever deeper into the murky depths of insanity. At one point, they even went so far as to believe that they were FW Murnau and Max Schreck during the making of the seminal Nosferatu. Unfortunately, the resulting film was pretty brilliant, and so doctors were too late in diagnosing their madness, hindered as they were by positive public opinion.
After his friend Klaus vanished into a cloud of mist never to return, Werner decided to become a documentarian, making weird films about grizzly bears, cave paintings and, in Into the Abyss, about capital punishment and the potential for evil within mankind. Werner may be mad, but within madness lays a truly unique and untarnished perspective on the horrors of the modern world.
Herzog’s documentary is a largely impartial consideration of capital punishment, though in the first interview with the prisoner facing the death sentence the director clearly asserts his personal belief that no human being should be executed. Impartiality and the avoidance of bias are therefore achieved through Herzog’s choice of case study in the documentary. The triple homicide detailed is a stark and disturbing one, not due to any morbidly grotesque or sadistic details of the crime, but in fact because of the pettiness of the criminals’ original intention of stealing a car, their callous and dispassionate progression to murder, their subsequent boastful pride in their actions, and the placement of these atrocities within a God-fearing and largely uneducated community. If the film’s title at first seems to have little to do with capital punishment, perhaps this is because it has far more resonance in light of the malignant evil Herzog uncovers surrounding all parties directly or indirectly concerned, either with this case or with state execution.
There is a deliberate contrast between opposing men of faith: the first conversation with a death row minister emphasises the priest’s belief in the sanctity of life and confusion about a God who allows capital punishment, whilst the religious conviction of the condemned man is that of someone apparently at peace with his actions and their consequences, yet troublingly lacking in remorse or desire for atonement. For some the death penalty is an affront to Christ’s martyrdom, yet to those the state executes the penalty allows them to achieve their own martyrdom: the condemned man uses his last words to forgive those who have put him to death. This tumultuous and conflicted exploration of the religious and moral implications of capital punishment are a much more forceful and provocative line of enquiry for Herzog, beyond the mere legalities of the sentence.
Aside from a former captain of the guard on death row, whose remarkably moving account of his experiences is the highlight of the film, not a single person emerges from the documentary in an unambiguous light. Our first impressions of the killers are as unfortunate men doomed from a young age who have come to terms with their destinies in an arguably courageous way, yet this sympathy evaporates when we hear about their numerous crimes. A woman related to two of the victims has had an extraordinarily tragic life in terms of the frequency of her exposure to familial death, yet more death in the form of capital punishment has given her a sense of release. The father of the murderer spared the death sentence, in favour of capital punishment, is simultaneously aware that his passionate emotional and religious pleas may have saved his son’s life at trial, yet doesn’t shy away from his own culpability in his son’s actions through his own absenteeism through crime.
The overwhelming bleakness of Herzog’s film sees the documentary become less an indictment of capital punishment and more a meditation upon mankind’s cruelty and barbarism, yet whilst the power of the piece benefits from a more restrained touch from the director his proclivity towards eccentricity nevertheless mars his attempts. An encouraged anecdote about squirrels on a golf course eventually justifies itself, but Herzog’s intrusive questioning concerning a prisoner’s wife’s pregnancy does not. Herzog will always be an intriguing oddity, but as this is the case is his inability to achieve detachment forever going to hinder him from becoming a truly great documentarian?