Into the Abyss with Werner Herzog

Appearances can deceive: this fresh-faced, smiling young man is Michael Perry, settling down to be interviewed by film-maker Werner Herzog eight days before he was executed by lethal injection after having spent nine years on death row at Huntsville Prison, Texas, for the murder and robbery of three people.

I saw Herzog’s new film, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, the other night at FACT, where it was followed by a Q&A session with the director beamed from the Gate Picturehouse in London.  It soon became clear that Into the Abyss is not the polemical anti-death penalty campaigning film you might expect, but rather an exploration of the nihilism of the crime itself and the collateral damage inflicted on the families of both the victims and the perpetrators.  The abyss that Herzog peers into is not just the darkness that Perry faces on the gurney, but the abyss at the heart of human existence.

For this was a particularly pointless and brutal triple murder in the Houston suburb of Conroe, Texas, as Herzog’s film elaborates. In 2001, two teenagers in Conroe, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, under the influence of drink and drugs, murdered a middle-aged housewife, Sandra Stotler, in her kitchen while she was baking cakes. They wanted the keys to her Camaro. Then they phoned her stepson and his friend (with whom they were acquainted) to get the code that would enable them to drive out of the gated community in which she lived. They killed them too and disposed of the bodies. Several days later, after a shoot-out with the police, the killers were arrested, confessed and were convicted.

Although the film is not explicitly anti-capital punishment, Herzog makes it clear to Michael Perry that he opposes the convicted killer’s imminent execution.  But, he continues, ‘I don’t have to like you’.  Herzog’s conversations with those affected by the killing of three people, peels away layers to expose a blasted terrain of broken and impoverished families living in a chaotic and divided Texas community.  It is clear that Herzog’s main interest is in the social context of the crime and immense psychological burdens resulting from it.

Jason Burkett

Herzog subtitles his film ‘A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life’, partly because Perry was sentenced to death while Burkett was given life after his father, a habitual criminal and himself serving  a life sentence in the same prison as his son, moved  jurors to tears at his son’s trial with his recitation of his sense of failure and blame for Jason’s actions.  Indeed, Herzog’s interview with Burkett senior forms a powerful and appalling centrepiece to the film.

Herzog structures his film into six chapters, with each chapter’s title (for example, ‘The Dark Side of Conroe’ and ‘The Protocols of Death’) delineating a precise element of the tragedy.  The film begins, however, with a prologue in which the  chaplain at Huntsville talks about his job of accompanying prisoners to the gurney on which they’re strapped down to receive the lethal injection. In a brilliant stroke, Herzog conducts the interview in the cemetery where the unclaimed bodies of executed prisoners are buried with numbers instead of names on their crosses. The crosses extend in all directions as far as the eye can see, as if it were a First World War cemetery.

The chaplain, who has only 20 minutes to talk before he is due at the next execution, begins to irritate Herzog with his rather bland responses about the wonders of God’s creation, as revealed in the squirrels that playfully bound across his golf course.  ‘Please describe an encounter with a squirrel’, counters Herzog with the kind of questions that probably no other interviewer would dream of asking, following up with the perfectly reasonable query, ‘Why does God allow capital punishment?’  At this the chaplain – who has witnessed over a hundred men die on the gurney – breaks down.

In an epilogue to the film, the captain of the ‘tie-down’ team responsible for ushering condemned men from the cell in which they have (or may not have) consumed their last food and drink to the execution room where they are strapped down on the gurney talks about resigning his job after attending more than 120 executions.  He lost his pension as a consequence.  The deaths he witnessed were just some of the record-breaking 152 executions carried out while George W Bush was governor of Texas.  His testimony is heartfelt and moving, and is the only impassioned anti-death penalty voice we hear in the film.  He tells how he came to see the importance of living  your ‘dash’ – you know, the line between the date of your birth and the date of your death on your gravestone, the dash that represents your life.

In the main body of the film, Herzog focusses on the deep loss articulated by those on both sides of the tragedy. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, sister and daughter to two of the victims, talks of how it seemed she had lost everything after the murders, which were only a part of a sequence of tragic deaths that decimated her family in only six years.

But Herzog reveals the personal traumas on the other side, too.  Fathers and brothers of the perpetrators are themselves serving substantial prison sentences.  Those related to the killers or acquainted with them tell of being  arrested at a relative’s funerals, of being homeless and living in the boot of a friend’s car, of being unable to read, of life in trailer parks, with no job, of living for the next high.  Most poignant is Herzog’s conversation with Jason Burkett’s father, himself  jailed for life and almost certain to die behind bars. He talks about his deep sense of being a ‘total failure’, almost never at home when Jason was growing up, he recognises he was a lousy father and was totally to blame for his son running off the rails.

Catherine Shoard, writing in The Guardian, noted that:

The cumulative effect suggests a world in which murder, desperation and operatic levels of tragedy are workaday (one town is actually called Cut and Shoot). As well as losing her brother and mother in the attacks, one woman tells how she also lost almost every other member of her family (plus dog) in a variety of colourful accidents, suicides and slayings in the six years beforehand. She unplugged her phone soon afterwards: “I just couldn’t handle another call.”

Of course, it being Herzog, there is a certain amount of weirdness to be chanced upon.  A tree has grown up inside the  Camaro during the decade it has stood in the parking lot behind the police station.  A young man who knew the two murderers tells of a being stabbed by a neighbour with a 14-inch Phillips screwdriver that was thrust into his chest right up to the handle. He didn’t go to hospital because ‘I had to be at work in 30 minutes’.  Somewhat aghast, Herzog asks, ‘But you were OK?’  ‘Seem to be’, says the man, ‘So I was lucky there’.

In fact, this conversation seems to be a key element of Herzog’s theme that, amidst the tragedy of the murders and the execution, and the desperate lives of the residents of Conroe to whom he speaks, there is an ‘urgency of life’ to be found here, too.  The Phillips screwdriver man excuses himself in order to get to work on time.  He has turned his life around.  After years of drug dependency and petty crime, he is newly literate and speaks of reading, now, and writing.  Herzog congratulates him and asks if he writes often. ‘Not so much writing. Lotta sanding’.

Also very weird is the testimony from the member of Burkett’s legal team who is now his wife, having become convinced of his innocence by the appearance of a rainbow over the jail.  She suddenly reaches for her phone and shows Herzog the ultrasound scan of the child she’s carrying – Burkett’s child. With Burkett ineligible for parole until 2041 and the couple able only to speak to other through a plate glass partition, she hints at ‘contraband’ semen being smuggled out of the jail.

Whether you regard it as weird, also, that every person to whom Herzog speaks – including both murderers – evokes God perhaps depends on whether you are an American or not.  Roger Ebert noted this strange phenomenon too:

The people in this film, without exception, cite God as a force in their lives. The killers, their relatives, the relatives of their victims, the police, everyone. God has a plan. It is all God’s will. God will forgive. Their lives are in His hands. They must accept the will of the Lord. Condemned or bereft, guilty or heartbroken, they all apparently find comfort in God’s plan. What Herzog concludes about their faith he does not say.

In the Q&A afterwards, Herzog distanced himself from the gamut of documentary film-makers. Distinguishing ‘facts’ from ‘truth’, he rejects the conventional factual documentary as nothing more than ‘accountant’s truth’.  Instead, he insists that  there’s something much deeper: a deeper truth which his films – both fictional and documentary – have tried to reveal.  It is, he said, the truth that is revealed when reading a great poem: ‘you feel illuminated, you don’t have to analyse, you just know instantly because there’s an ecstasy of truth in the poem’.  It’s that ‘ecstasy of truth’ that he seeks through his films:

To get at that deeper truth you have to be inventive, you have to be imaginative. Otherwise you will end up with what cinema-vérité does – they are the accountants of truth. I’m after something deeper. I call it the the ‘ecstasy of truth’.

See also