Into the Abyss

In Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (2011) Werner Herzog brings his flair, creativity, and sensitivity to a bleak story about two men convicted of a triple-homicide in Texas – one serving life, the other on death row. The film opens in a state graveyard where the crosses on the graves have no names, only numbers. Herzog is interviewing a chaplain who guides people through their executions – like so many moments in the film, the chaplain fights off tears as he struggles to come to terms with the way he is implicated in state killing, averring his belief that things are right in the Lord’s world while he clearly cannot quite handle it. We then settle into the seeping, drawn out shock of watching Michael Perry talk to Herzog, 8 days before his execution by the state of Texas on July 1, 2010. He is bright-eyed, believes he is innocent, and that he is going to be with his god.

Over a sparse and stirring, yet sometimes slightly overbearing soundtrack of wailing strings and droning bass, Herzog follows a police lieutenant to the scenes of murder, where Perry and Jason Burkett allegedly killed a woman and then two other young men (they were around 18 at the time) for a red Chevy Camaro. Herzog seems to find a common language with his subjects to describe it: “she died for a car,”; “they died for what?” Somewhere between his interviewees’ Christian faith and their rural American poverty, Herzog raises the specter of a death for something, which thus means something – a martyrdom – only it turns out to be for nothing. As he has commented in a radio interview, he was “fascinated by the senselessness of the the crime.” Young boys, unemployed and alienated, kill for a car that they drive for less than 72 hours.

But it is not just these boys who are hopeless, who kill, are killed, and incarcerated. The film broadens into a snapshot of a population in which males are structurally in trouble with the law, killing, being killed, going to jail. This first jumps out when Herzog asks the brother of one of the victims to describe where he was at the time. We find out the brother himself had just gotten out of jail. He skipped bond to attend his brother’s funeral – “he was my best friend,” he cries – and was arrested at the funeral by 6 officers. “Can I at least stay for my brother’s funeral?” he reports having asked. He couldn’t. The father of the other defendant, Jason Burkett, is himself in jail, not for the first time. From a privileged island in the Southside of Chicago, it sounds familiar: public housing assistance, food stamps, failed education, and people who tell you that several of the most important men in their life are or were in prison. While here in Chicago I associate this kind of crisis with disproportionately black and latino communities, in Conroe, Texas similar dynamics play out on a white population — which clearly bothered a few of the UChicago students in the audience, who couldn’t muffle their laughs at the mannerisms of one of the interviewees, a young white man with a goatee who had himself been in jail, was illiterate until adulthood, was nearly killed by Michael Perry several years earlier, and turned away from Herzog to spit on the ground whenever something unsavory came up. The laughs: cultural and class condescension, stripped of the niceties we have somehow evolved for the colored population our system disenfranchises right here in our global city.

Even the red Camaro, the commodity whose luster caused death, remains incarcerated – or, impounded by the police – sitting and decaying in a fenced-in lot. Herzog goes to see it alongside other cars shot up by bullets and otherwise falling apart. “3 people died for this car,” he says to the officer, who adds matter-of-factly that a tree took root right underneath the middle of the car and grew up through the floor, making it very hard to move. Later, in the section “Time and Emptiness,” Herzog speaks with Jason Burkett’s father, apparently in his 60s, who is also in jail. The older Burkett looks back to the anticipatory moment of his life – when he was on a football scholarship at U of T – and then made decisions that took him onto a course of drug abuse and crime. The dad blames his own failings for Jason’s failings, and recounts how he testified to this in court, that he had been “trash” of a father – a testimony compelling enough that it narrowly got Jason out of a death sentence. During the trial was the last time they saw each other and touched – father and son chained together on a prison bus – “I never would have thought that would happen,” says the father. And now Jason will get out in 31 years – “that’s 1941,” he says. “You’re a century behind,” Herzog tells him, amused but contrite. It takes the aging man a few minutes. “Oh, 2041, that’s right.” “Yes, I guess time is different in here,” says Herzog. As the once lustrous Camaro, the fleeting object of desire, decays in the police lot, the man who coveted the object grows old under police watch, and so does his father. The commodities and the men are all locked up and decaying: a quintessentially American nightmare.

Most of the people Herzog talks to have heard traumatic news over the phone that makes their “knees go weak,” or perpetrated the acts that ripped loved ones out of the worlds of those who loved them. These people are dealing with traumatic death close at hand, and they share a range of coping mechanisms: embracing a wholehearted Christian faith, or shutting down, cutting themselves off from others, suppressing emotions, and, before the camera, suppressing tears.

Herzog’s most striking interviewee is a former perpetrator of murder – not independent, but state-sanctioned. (Herzog has a post-Nazi German sensitivity to state killing as such, as he’s noted in a radio interview, but also to the humanity of perpetrators. Even Perry and Burkett – not entirely remorseful – are human beings, not monsters, Herzog has insisted in the same radio interview. Herzog attempts to disrupt the idea of murderers as monsters – which Foucault identified as a key discourse in the production of a category of the “abnormal” in modern European societies, which helped prepare the ground for Nazi racism itself.) In the last act, “A Glimmer of Hope,” we meet Fred Allen, the captain of an execution team at Huntsville death row for many years.  Allen describes how he helped carry out over 100 executions, and “it was difficult,” but he left his emotions behind. Then, one time – it was the first time he executed a woman – the emotions came pouring back. He didn’t know what was happening, as his knees went weak. And he could no longer do it. He quit his job and lost his pension, says Herzog’s implicitly endorsing text on the screen. Out of a shockingly bleak collage of lives and deaths comes something like a redeemer for Herzog. He is no activist, he simply quit.

Herzog’s own ethics here are principled: as he says repeatedly to his interviewees, he thinks it is wrong on principle to execute another human being, plain and simple. In contrast, Fred’s ethics compels because it is practiced. He doesn’t understand why, but he no longer can methodically execute people, and that is why he now opposes the death penalty. And Fred’s situated, immediate generation of an ethics in the face of death more readily translates to our experience viewing this film. We don’t sit through a principled lecture on why we should abolish capital punishment, notwithstanding Herzog’s occasional comments. His brilliance is to hint at at the policy critique only obliquely, by creating an unsettling encounter with particular wrecked lives on unfamiliar territory, shot at eccentric angles, with an unlikely “hero” in Fred. We would do well to see in this aesthetic brilliance an opening for political allegory, which is potentially efficacious because Herzog resists the intellectual urge to induce to or draw on general principles. Rather, he throws us head-on, through testimony, up against the trauma and bleakness not only of the small, exceptional world of the execution cell – but of a contemporary rural America where, like our cities, large portions of the population live in poverty, sometimes fighting and killing for what they don’t have, an America in which a father and his son sit at this moment – apart – in prison.

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