Reverend Richard Lopez stands before the state cemetery, its rows of diminutive white crosses bearing no names, only numbers. He talks about his work as a Texas prison chaplain, the importance of making God’s presence felt by the condemned in their final moments. He talks about communing with nature, about nearly running over a squirrel with his golf cart; he’s almost laughing, and then, so suddenly, almost in tears as his monologue swerves into his feelings about ministering men toward death. It’s astonishing, how much transpires in the first six minutes of Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, a film so saturated with pain you want to wring it from your clothes afterward.
Herzog’s subsequent subject, Michael Perry, is all smiles, buggy eyes, boyish Alfred E. Newman head, higher power-speak, the manic cheerfulness of denial. Their conversation occurred eight days before Perry’s execution. Off-camera, though visible as a reflection in the prison Plexiglas, Herzog makes his opposition to capital punishment clear from the start of their interview, but offers no bullshit about being Perry’s buddy or trying to exonerate him. You can’t help but feel sympathy for this goofy kid staring into that titular abyss, but just as those sympathies burble up Herzog cuts straight to police video records of the bloodied scene of the crimes committed by Perry and Jason Burkett ten years earlier.
Circularity is a steady motif in Herzog’s filmography, whose highlights stretch from Aguirre: Wrath of God to Cave of Forgotten Dreams. With Into the Abyss, now on DVD and blu-ray, this circularity becomes an ethic as much as an aesthetic. We return again and again throughout this, among the most straightforward—the film is comprised mostly of interviews and features no characteristic Herzog editorializing voice-over—and most powerful of Herzog’s documentaries, to the crimes and their unfathomable senselessness. Perry and Burkett, whose testimonies conflict, each placing blame on the other, were convicted for killing Sandra Stotler, apparently for no other reason than to steal her Camaro, and then killing her son Adam and his best friend Jeremy Richardson, apparently for no other reason that to acquire the clicker that opens the gate of the community where Stotler lived. Perry got death; Burkett got life imprisonment.
Into the Abyss has more in common with Krzysztof Kieślowski's A Short Film About Killing than it does your garden variety true-crime exposé. Exuding equal parts compassion and interrogational rigour, Herzog’s interest lies primarily in surveying the culture in which such appalling, idiotic violence festers. He speaks to the criminals and their relatives, including Burkett’s father, also incarcerated; to relatives of the victims, including Lisa Stotler-Ballounto, who lost her entire family to random tragedies over a period of six years; to locals whose lives and careers are connected to the penal system; and to varied citizens of Conroe, where the crimes took place, and neighbouring Cut and Shoot, including a guy named Jared, who knew Burkett, who also did time in prison, and who recalls how he was once stabbed through the chest with a screwdriver and never bothered to go to hospital for it. This film is, among other things, a study in how families can fall disastrously apart, and how a place and its laws can create a closed circuit of deterministic despair, where murder, both illegal and institutionalized, infects everything in its vicinity.
Circularity: the final testimony in Into the Abyss rhymes with the first. Fred Allen was captain of the death house team. He supervised over 120 executions before suffering a nervous breakdown, resigning, despite the loss of his pension, and reversing his previous endorsement of capital punishment. Allen remains haunted by the ghosts who crowd his abbreviated career, and Herzog listens well as Allen tries to assess the meaning of his overwhelming experiences. We’re left, after hearing all these stories, with a sense of our collective, unreasonably durable faith in the possibility of redemption, and of our fascination with life, however fraught, death, however absurd, and whatever might come after. And, as another of Herzog’s subjects—his most surprising—assures us, we also catch a glimmer of the way fresh hope can spring from even the most abysmal of situations.