Werner Herzog continues to stir souls with his most recent feature length documentary Into the Abyss. I haven’t seen his recent television series On Death Row, which focuses on the incarceration and philosophies and thoughts of certain death row inmates, but if it’s anything like Into the Abyss, or even affiliated with Herzog, for that matter, then you can certainly expect great intellectual stimulation or provocative thoughts.
Into the Abyss concentrates on a triple homicide committed by two men who await their fate during filming. One of the inmates is on death row, while the other faces a life sentence. The first part of the film examines the scene of the crime and looks at the details of the crime. Herzog interviews both the inmates, as well as the families of the victim and the people involved with prison duties. Herzog explicitly states during interviews that he is opposed to the death penalty, but the film is not an indictment of the death penalty; rather, Herzog wants his audience to come to their own conclusions about death and justice.
Herzog was only allowed limited time periods to interview each inmate, so his questions are calculated and he asks many brilliantly esoteric questions and offers engaging insights. His subjects experience a wide range of emotions. The interviews are not truly interviews; it’s almost like they are testimonies or confessionals, and several of the interviewees are reduced to tears as they tell Herzog their most poignant and hurtful stories. We learn of a father who has had the misfortune of spending Thanksgiving in prison with his sons, who are also inmates, a brother who unknowingly introduced the people who would kill his brother to him, a death row officer who burnt out, a woman who is still deeply in love with her murderous fiance, and so much more.
Into the Abyss looks at the reality of prison life, what the inmates face, their thoughts and philosophies and newfound changes they experience in their life. It an exploration of another world beyond our own. I was so stirred by the film’s conclusion that I could barely speak or communicate with my colleagues. Into the Abyss will have that effect on you. Encounters at the End of the World stirred us with the wonder and beauty of Antarctica and the unconquerable, and Grizzly Man stirred us for the audacity/recklessness of a man who knew no boundaries between nature and humanity. Into the Abyss stirs us with the capabilities and possibilities and horrors of the human mind. Descending into the abyss, we are left staring into it, wondering in horror.