Into the Abyss
In 1988 Werner Herzog’s close friend Errol Morris released his documentary The Thin Blue Line. It was about a man falsely accused of murder in Texas and sentenced to death. Today it still stands as a timely and powerful argument against capital punishment.
Now, nearly a quarter-century later, with state-sanctioned killing still going strong, Herzog himself has traveled to Texas to make a film on the subject.
With Into the Abyss: A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death, Herzog focuses on a triple homicide that occurred one night in Monroe, Texas.
Herzog interviews the two men convicted of the crime in prison. Michael Perry is sentenced to death and will die eight days after the interview. His accomplice Jason Burkett is serving a life sentence. Though both men claim they are innocent, it does not appear that an injustice has been done, and Herzog seems to believe they are guilty.
Herzog goes into great detail on the murders. He visits the scenes of the crime and interviews the police chief and several acquaintances of the convicted as well as family members of the victims. He paints Monroe as a kind of hell on earth, a place where civilization has broken down. Education seems to be absent, and drug use and alcoholism is the only way of life. It seems everyone in town has been to prison at some point. You are lucky if you can learn to read and earn an hourly wage.
We meet Burkett’s father, also serving a long prison sentence. He has been in and out of jail his whole life, and takes responsibility for failing to raise his son. “I don’t know what those boys did or didn’t do, I wasn’t there,” he says, “but they don’t need to be killed, it won’t change a damn thing.” This is the underlining theme of the film. These were kids that never had a chance in life. They ended up doing horrible things. But what is killing them going to accomplish? It won’t bring any lives back, and it won’t stop anyone else from committing a crime.
Herzog is great with finding fascinating characters, or making fascinating characters out of ordinary people. Herzog interviews Burkett’s wife, who met him only after he was sent to prison. They have only been able to share brief hugs when she visits, but somehow she is now pregnant with his child. There is also the death row chaplain, who cries when Herzog asks him to recite a story about seeing a squirrel on the golf course. He shares a time when a bushy-tailed rodent stopped in front of his golf cart and stared at him. He stopped the cart—saving the squirrels life. “But I can’t save the lives of any of these people,” he weeps.
This is a film as sad and depressing as a film can be, but it serves as a reminder that life is a delicate and precious thing. The United States is the only civilized western country that still carries out the death penalty. Why? Does state sanctioned murder really solve any problems? Herzog dedicates the film to the families of the victims of violent crimes. The way I see it, all murder is a crime, legal or not.