Look deep into the eyes of anyone captured in Werner Herzog’s documentary, Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, and you can feel it - the abyss that gives this film its name.
You feel the abyss within Lisa Stolter-Balloun as she remembers the time in 2001 when both her mother, Sandra Stotler, and her younger brother, Adam Stotler, were brutally murdered along with Adam’s friend, Jeremy Richardson.
Brutal crimes with a senseless motive - the theft of a car.
You sense the abyss within the two men found guilty of these crimes. It stalks Michael Perry as he sits on death row in Texas, eight days away from his scheduled execution. It torments Jason Burkett as he contemplates a lifetime in prison.
The abyss also takes hold of Death House chaplain, the Reverend Richard Lopez, when a simple story about a squirrel (classic Herzog) catches him off guard and makes him face the fact that in 40 minutes he will watch someone die - unable, despite the redemptive narrative of his religion, to change that person’s fate.
Thanks to Herzog’s honest and insistent questioning (of which he is a master) and lingering camera, Into The Abyss is one of the most devastating and thought provoking documentaries about crime and punishment, life and death.
We see haunting police footage and hear the facts of the case from Lieutenant Damon Hall of the Conroe, Texas Police Department. Both Perry and Burkett appear guilty of the murders but both protest their innocence - turning on each other with tales honed from ten years of incarceration.
However, Herzog is not interested in their guilt or innocence. Perry, for whom time is running out, is momentarily stunned by the director’s stance. “I have a feeling that destiny has dealt you a very bad deck of cards,” Herzog tells him. “It does not exonerate you and when I talk to you it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you. But I respect you and you are a human being and I think human beings should not be executed.”
Herzog’s position on the death penalty springs from his Bavarian roots. In a statement about his documentary, the director refers to Nazi Germany where “there were thousands and thousands of cases of capital punishment; there was a systematic programme of euthanasia, and on top of it the industrialized extermination of six million Jews in a genocide that has no precedence in human history.
“The argument that innocent men and women have been executed is, in my opinion, only a secondary one. A State should not be allowed - under any circumstance - to execute anyone for any reason. End of story.”
While Herzog is against capital punishment, Into The Abyss is a remarkably balanced documentary. The film presents the experiences of all sides and includes cutaway shots of outdoor life that allow us space to consider the many thought provoking issues raised.
Herzog is particularly fascinated by the idea that inmates on death row know the date and the time (often down to the last second) that they will die. As a result, they hold knowledge that few of us will ever have.
Into The Abyss contemplates existence in the light of this knowledge and questions how we should live our lives. What should we take from the experiences of those on death row? Should this knowledge make us cherish life more?
Thanks to emotional testimony from his father, Delbert, Jason Burkett narrowly escaped joining Perry on death row. Delbert visited the court from prison where he was serving a hefty sentence of his own.
Herzog encourages Delbert to consider a life that might have been and captures a moment of overwhelming regret. The emotional power of this scene is enough to make anyone treasure the gift of life and the luxury of time and freedom.
Meanwhile, life and love finds a way - even when you are facing the prospect of 40 years in prison. Herzog interviews Melyssa Burkett, who married Jason after working in a post-conviction support group on his behalf.
The two were married in a maximum security prison - over a telephone and separated by a wall of bulletproof glass. The documentary reveals that, despite having no ‘physical’ contact with her husband, she is pregnant by him. Herzog teases vague information from Melyssa about the smuggling of "contraband" from Jason out of the prison.
While the urgency of life plays an important part in his documentary, the abyss is never far from Herzog’s mind. Perhaps the most powerful example comes from an interview with Fred Allen, a former captain of the ‘tie-down’ team in the Death House who used to strap the condemned to a gurney before their execution.
Allen is a man haunted by his past. He tells us that, after over 125 executions, he had a breakdown. He began shaking uncontrollably and could not stop crying. He realised that he could no longer do his job and retired, losing his pension.
“I was pro capital punishment,” Allen explains. After his breakdown? “No sir. Nobody has the right to take another life. I don’t care if it’s the law.”
It is hard to look at Allen and disagree. However, Herzog maintains balance by cutting to Lisa Stolter-Balloun. She expresses relief at the prospect of a world without Micheal Perry. Herzog does not judge her for her feelings. Interested in her experience of this most painful process, he is respectful of her story at all times.
The film’s final moments are spent with Fred Allen. He is the heart of Into The Abyss and the conclusion of his story - and of the documentary itself - is a welcome reminder for us all to go out there and live our lives.