My first encounter with Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life came during an Intelligence Squared discussion with its inimitable Bavarian director, Werner Herzog, who drip fed his army of devotees brief clips of interviews that would later form the aforementioned feature film and a TV documentary series; the less romantically titled Death Row (now airing on Channel 4).
At this juncture, he was still in the process of editing and piecing together the footage, hours of claustrophobic meetings with convicted murderers and the collateral damage of their crimes, namely the parents, partners and siblings of the victims. Unfortunately, a project brimming with promise has culminated in a rather vague examination of the dark side of the human soul, a collection of harrowing events that pleasingly rejects the bombast and sensationalism of its cable television equivalents yet fails to form any coherent meaning other than to wallow in the abject pointlessness of truly disgraceful homicidal acts.
Split into six chapters and a prologue (“Time and Emptiness”, “The Urgency of Life” etc) Herzog focuses on the case of two social misfits who set out to commit a petty theft and ended up killing three innocent people. It emerges that one of the men, Jason Burkett, has been spared the prospect of death by lethal injection thanks to a desperate plea by his father who cites a terrible upbringing, administered by himself, as the root cause of his son’s later behaviour.
However, his accomplice, Michael Perry, receives no such pardon and thus bears the brunt of Herzog’s unremitting investigative style of questioning. Inevitably, given the questioner, subjects include the rare experience of knowing the exact time and day you’re going to die, not to mention by what means. A particular highlight is Perry recounting a distressing incident with a monkey on a kayaking holiday.
In a section that echoes a scene in Grizzly Man, Herzog asks bereaved relatives to hold up photos of the victims, some barely able to speak through their tears. It’s a peculiarly cold moment in the film, appropriately devoid of sentimentality yet simultaneously utterly lacking in feeling. It is the moment one begins to suspect Herzog’s seductive narrative presence lends more ‘meaning’ than the content itself.
After last year’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss is somewhat of a palette cleanser, albeit with the same quota of oddball moments (a parking lot of cars all of whose owners are dead; a death row groupie’s description of the mystical significance of a rainbow) and a similarly introspective, pseudo-religious soundtrack (supplied this time round by David Byrne and Sebastian Steinberg). If this is Herzog’s non-fiction foray into the murder and chaos of the human world he once famously ascribed to the jungle in Les Blank’s Burden Of Dreams it is certainly less compelling, even if its bewildered detachment is its overarching ambition.