From Clash’s 2012 film issue.
Werner Herzog is perhaps the most consistently fascinating director alive. His fictional body of his work has seen him coax Nicolas Cage into delivering his finest performance in years in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, while Aguirre: The Wrath of God influenced Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. His documentaries unveil strange characters in even stranger environments and often see Herzog’s German accent employed to deliver obtuse questioning. In Encounters At The End of the World, a study of people working in Antarctica, he asks an expert interviewee: “Is there such a thing as insanity among Penguins? I try to avoid the definition of insanity or derangement. I don’t mean that a penguin might believe he or she is Lenin or Napoleon Bonaparte, but could they just go crazy because they’ve had enough of their colony?” Sometimes fate leads his films to cross territories. Fitzcarraldo follows the story of a man who attempts to pull a steamship over a steep hill – something that the production itself replicated without special effects. Such were the burdens of the film’s creation that it inspired Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams and Herzog’s book Conquest of the Useless. And when he’s not making his own films, Herzog can be spotted acting in other people’s films, notably as a gas mask-clad abusive father in Julien Donkey-Boy and as a priest who leads a nun to a likely death in Mister Lonely.
Needless to say, Herzog is quite a character. He once told Errol Morris that he’d eat his shoe if Morris completed his pet cemetery docu Gates of Heaven, and was subsequently filmed doing exactly that in Blank’s self-explanatory short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Most famously, he was shot by an air rifle during an interview with Mark Kermode. His reaction? “It hurts a little bit, but it’s not a significant bullet.” He’ll assert himself if he doesn’t agree with a line of questioning or subtly mock those which he doesn’t approve of, but there’s no malice involved. (“Would you consider yourself more of a storyteller than a documentarian?” I ask. “Documentaries should be storytelling as well,” he replies. “Let’s face it, we’re not in the business of accountants”). Regardless, Herzog has helmed roughly twice as many documentaries in the past two decades as he has feature-length fictional movies. Not that this has been his conscious plan. In his own words, delivered in that famous quizzical Germanic tone, “It comes like an uninvited guest, like burglars in your kitchen in the middle of the night.”
Herzog’s playfulness understandably takes a back seat in his new film Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life which examines two men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were convicted of a triple homicide that occurred in Texas and the aftermath of their actions. Perry was executed eight days after Herzog interviewed him for the film, while Burkett is serving a life sentence.
Despite his opposition to capital punishment, Herzog is eager to emphasise that Into The Abyss is not a film about that issue. “It’s a film about life, it’s a film about a senseless crime and the repercussions of that crime. The whole tapestry is of a very dark Americana.” Just as importantly, he declares, “Being a German, with the dark past of Germany under the Nazis, I would be the last one to try to tell the Americans how to handle their criminal justice.”
Herzog pulls no punches when he first meets Perry, telling him: “Destiny has dealt you a bad deck of cards which does not exonerate you, and which does not necessarily mean that I have to like you.”
“I risked the film with that,” states Herzog. “I wanted to tell him and I wanted to be a straight shooter with him, like with everyone else. I had to anticipate that he wouldn’t get up and leave the discourse. People on death row who spend ten years in isolation in a tiny concrete cell, they can tell from miles away if somebody is a phoney or not.”
In addition to Into The Abyss, Herzog also created Death Row, a four-part television series which studies those awaiting their final fate. Herzog isn’t interested in addressing questions of guilt or innocence – half of those interviewed admit to their crimes, while the evidence against Perry and Burkett is overwhelming. What sparks his curiosity is the minutiae of each person’s background, and what small steps have taken them to catastrophic consequences, using Death Row subject Joseph Garcia as an example: “His catastrophe starts with the most average everyday encounter with a young women with some friends. She’s on a couch, he happens to sit on the same couch and she has no socks on. Her toes are cold and she asks him whether she can tuck her toes under his thighs. Of course, with great pleasure he agrees. And this gesture leads to a jealous confrontation with one of the other guys in the room and has all of a sudden catastrophic consequences which ultimately take him all the way to death row. I’m fascinated by these details, how they turn into something cataclysmic.”
Herzog uses another Death Row subject, Hank Skinner, to illustrate how the death sentence alters someone’s perspective: “He was taken from death row forty-two miles to Huntsville because that’s where the death chamber is, where he’s to be executed. For one last time, the first in many years, they see the open sky, they see a gas station. They’re in a cage in a van accompanied by police armed to the teeth. And they see the world one last time for forty minutes. And Skinner says something very remarkable: ‘Everything looks like Israel. Everything looks like the holy land.’ It made me curious and I travelled the same forty-two miles from death row to the death chamber. And all of a sudden an abandoned gas station with a decrepit ramshackle hut with a sign, ‘Happy worm bait shop’, becomes something magnificent. The most insignificant landscape all of a sudden is magnificent. Even a cow in a field. The pasture looks like the holy land.”
The director certainly isn’t an apologist for those convicted of such heinous crimes. “All the cases I went into had something specific, the amount of senselessness,” he sighs with evident sorrow. “The amount of senselessness is staggering. It’s completely and utterly senseless. As you know I’m not an advocate of capital punishment. But in very severe cases and this is one of them, I would be an advocate of life in prison. If I were in Texas and had I committed a triple homicide and the jury walked out to deliberate whether it would be life in prison or execution, I would ask for execution for myself.” Ultimately, the film is dedicated to the families of the victims of violent crime.
Into The Abyss also looks beyond the perpetrators. Take Fred Allen, for example, who Herzog describes as “one of the most wonderful people I have ever met in my life.” Allen was captain of the tie-down team, the squad that would strap down the condemned man prior to his execution. After 125 executions, Allen suddenly quit his job, forfeiting his pension in the process. But what prompted his decision? “He can’t even name exactly what it was,” says Herzog, his voice clearly still bewildered but reverberating with admiration. “He started to shake uncontrollably and couldn’t stop crying but doesn’t know exactly what is going on. He was very fascinating.”
Herzog spent less than an hour with each person featured in Into The Abyss. The opening subject, for example is the Reverend Richard Lopez who, just forty minutes later, had to accompany a convict to his fate: the lethal injection. The interview is classic Herzog as a seemingly empty question unveils more than anyone could reasonably expect.
“He was under pressure and he talks like a phoney TV preacher, forgiving god and paradise awaiting everyone, the beauty of creation,” recalls Herzog. “He starts to rave about the beauty of the golf course in the morning, sometimes a squirrel or a horse would look at him, or a deer would be standing there. So I stop him and ask from behind the camera, ‘Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.’ Instantaneously he breaks down and it unravels him. It’s like breaking his chest open and looking straight into his heart.”
Is this method of inquisition instinctive?
“It’s not just instinctive because you’d think that would be in-born. A deer in the forest follows its instincts,” he laughs. “But I think I’ve learned it in a way, I don’t know. You do not learn this in journalist school or film school or anywhere. No-one would ever ask this question, but I do.” The trick, he says, is to instantly find the right tone to connect with someone. “You have to know the heart of man,” he summarises.
Previous Herzog documentaries have often found that certain something that takes the story to a new plateau. Sometimes it’s an outlandish character that fiction couldn’t possibly conjure up, in others it’s a scenario that should in reality provide to be equally absurd. With Into The Abyss, it’s very much the latter. Burkett married Melyssa, a young woman who had worked in his support group after his conviction. Even though the nature of the marriage (in prison, separately by a bullet-proof wall of glass to a man unlikely ever to be free again) suggests an overwhelmingly sad future for Melyssa, stories of women falling for prisoners – even those as extreme as serial killers John Wayne Gacy and Richard Ramirez – are common place. The story here is just as bizarre. “How do you become pregnant when you’re only allowed to hold hands?” quizzes Herzog, genuinely sounding more baffled than he ever has before.
“The last chapter in the film is The Urgency of Life,” he continues. “Death is all pervasive in the story, but at the same time the whole film is about the urgency of life. The fact that Melyssa Burkett is pregnant from her husband who has committed three homicides is kind of remarkable. There’s something that’s inherent in life. Maybe the only meaning of life is some sort of cosmic urgency. I don’t want to speculate too much, but it’s too evident in the film. It’s supposed to be about death and facing death, and knowing about the moment you’re going to die and knowing about exactly every single step of the protocol of how you’re going to die.”
Herzog attempts to clarify this point by referring again to his interview with Fred Allen: “He says that his life is in order and he looks at the world differently. He sits back and looks at life. What all the birds are doing, what the ducks are doing and the hummingbirds? Pause. ‘Why are there so many of them?’ Cut: end of film.”