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Werner Herzog And Mr. Beaks Gaze INTO THE ABYSS!

Published at: Nov. 14, 2011, 7:49 p.m. CST

In the prologue of Werner Herzog's documentary, INTO THE ABYSS: A TALE OF LIFE, A TALE OF DEATH, a death row chaplain who administers last rites to the condemned explains how he finds solace in the lush, tranquil beauty of the golf course. He describes how he is moved by the occasional run-in with an animal, even one as insignificant as a squirrel. So Herzog follows up with a question probably no interviewer on the planet would ever think to ask: "Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel." And so he does, recalling a time when a squirrel darted in front of his golf cart, and how he was able to break in time and spare the animal's life. A few seconds later, the man whose job it is to observe the execution of countless prisoners every year is in tears.

Herzog only had an hour with this chaplain, but he elicited this profoundly moving response by picking up on the man's sensitivities. Why did he single out squirrels? Why not ask? Herzog employs this intuitive line of questioning with all of his subjects in the documentary, and the result is a quietly devastating contemplation on the fragility of life and the finality of death. This is obviously well-trod ground, but by examining a senseless triple homicide committed by two morally adrift Texas teenagers (one of whom, Michael Perry, is scheduled for execution without a prayer of a stay), Herzog emerges with an reasoned and empathetic portrait of a system - capital punishment - that serves no greater good.

But this is not advocacy filmmaking. The first third of the film objectively walks the audience through the grisly details of the murder. From there, Herzog turns the movie over to the sorrow and residual anger of the victims' family, the frightening congeniality of the condemned and, most movingly, the regret of a former death house captain, Fred Allen, who after participating in over 100 executions has renounced the system altogether. Allen is the compassionate center of the film: he's a good man who experienced a crisis of conscience. Amidst all the discussion of death, there is hope in Allen's epiphany that life is not his, or the state's, to take.

When I interviewed Herzog last week, I was curious to learn why he chose this case, and how he earned the trust of his subjects. It was a brief chat, but Herzog's genius transcends time limits. It's always a pleasure to talk with one of our great filmmakers.

  

Werner Herzog: Hello, this is Werner Herzog.

Mr. Beaks: Hello, Werner. This is Jeremy Smith from Ain't It Cool News. How are you today?

Herzog: Good, good, thank you. Staying awake with a double espresso. I am a working man.

Beaks: Careful not to have too many of those.

Herzog: I'll be cautious.

Beaks: What triggered your desire to make a film about the death penalty in America?

Herzog: It's not a film about the death penalty. It's a film about death. How should I say it... it's the title of the film: "Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life". It's very much about life, and the urgency of life as well. It's a coincidence, I guess, that this film which I started in June of last year that it comes right at the time of a rekindled debate about capital punishment. But it was very early in my adolescence when I wanted to make my very first film about not death penalty, but the maximum security prison system in Germany. Thank god I failed, because the project was really mature.

Beaks: Why did you choose this case?

Herzog: The senselessness. The staggering amount of senselessness. You see, if you have a bank robbery and somebody gets shot, that's tragic enough, but at least you can understand that there was an aim by the criminal: the cash in the bank. But in this case it's so utterly senseless that it really disturbs and disquiets me.

Beaks: How easy or difficult was it to gain access to the perpetrators and the victims' families?

Herzog: With the perpetrators there are clear rules: you have to write them, and, only if they write back and invite you, then you have to take the next step. You have to ask the state of Texas or the state of Florida or whatever. Normally it would be the warden, if he would allow it. And then of course you should rather ask the attorneys of the inmate. In one case, an attorney found it unwise for his client on death row to talk to me because there was an ongoing appeal. The attorney told me, "My client has a tendency to say stupid things which might diminish his possibilities, his chances in this appeal procedure." So I immediately stopped the whole thing and didn't do it.

Beaks: For someone who is so close to being executed, Michael Perry seems shockingly upbeat. How long did you interview him, and did you ever get a sense that he was covering up his fear or felt genuine regret for what he did?

Herzog: Well, it's hard to judge because the time I had with him was limited to fifty minutes, and I couldn't have any second conversation with him because eight days later he was executed. But he looks like a lost kid, almost in the same class as James Dean. However I have seen quite a few men and one woman on death row, and according to my instincts no one was as dangerous as he was. I think he was the most dangerous of anyone I ever met. But he looks like a kid and laughs and is joyful, and at the same time he's the only one I would be scared of.

Beaks: You get remarkable insight out of Lisa Stotler. How long did you have with her, and was she initially guarded?

Herzog: I had one hour with her in my entire life. I went there and started shooting, and my getting to know her is on tape. Every single person in the film I met with one hour or less - with only one exception, Melissa Burkett, the wife of one of the perpetrators who is in prison for life. I met her before shooting. All the others I had twenty, twenty-five, fifty or sixty minutes, and that was all I had in my entire life with them.

Beaks: Was that your choice?

Herzog: Well, the prison system wouldn't allow you more than an hour. The death house chaplain with whom I speak at the beginning, he came on the set tapping at his wristwatch saying, "Quick, quick. I have to be in the death house in forty minutes to assist an inmate who is going to be executed." Which I think is okay. You have to be able to cope with it. If you're a professional, you have to come up with a decent result.

Beaks: I was very struck by Fred Allen's description of how he did his job as the captain of the death house. He took a real blue collar pride in his job.

Herzog: He did it with integrity. Professionally and with integrity.

Beaks: It left me wondering why he chose this profession in the first place.

Herzog: I do not know. I think he was a regular, straightforward Texas citizen with great integrity. Otherwise, I don't think he would've been chosen for this job, to spend the last eight or ten hours with inmates who were going to the execution chamber. You see, I always hear this Texas bashing, which I do not like. You find some of the best of the best of men and women in Texas. You look at Fred Allen, he is Texan, and an American cannot get any better than him. He should be a national treasure.

Beaks: At the end of the film you get Lisa to admit that life in prison would be an acceptable alternative punishment. But nearly everyone you speak to in the film, they just accept the death penalty as a fact of life. It's an institution, and it's not going anywhere. They're inured to it.

Herzog: It reflects the mood of the vast majority of the electorate. You see, I'm not in favor of capital punishment. As a German, I respectfully disagree. And when I say "as a German," it's because the historical background I have is a different one. I would be the last one who would ever try to tell the American people how to handle criminal justice. That would be absurd. So I respectfully disagree.

 

I respectfully urge you to check out INTO THE ABYSS when it comes to a theater near you. It's currently in a few select locations, and will be expanding throughout the country over the next month. Check out the film's official Facebook page for full release details.

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

Readers Talkback

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  • Even if he's not always totally successful (for me MY SON, MY SON was disappointing) there's an honesty and directness about his work that is always interesting. It's incredible that he's maintained his genuine integrity all these years.

  • MARK KERMODE wasn't so lucky

  • Nov. 14, 2011, 8:09 p.m. CST

    One of the masters

    by proevad

    He's never made a bad film, and he's made a shitload of movies--it could be argued that he's the greatest filmmaker in history.

  • Nov. 14, 2011, 8:18 p.m. CST

    Nice interview-- can't wait to see the movie.

    by chifforobe

    Herzog, like Lynch, will not lose his touch, ever.

  • Nov. 14, 2011, 8:43 p.m. CST

    Always worth checking out Herzog's work...

    by Mel Garga

    I don't get to see nearly as many movies as I'd like to these days but I know with Werner I'll get something authentic and original. Thanks for posting an interview.

  • Nov. 14, 2011, 9:16 p.m. CST

    that is how I'd like to live my life

    by quentintarantado

    Shooting films and kicking the bucket while shooting a film. I'm a teacher, and I'd like to keep teaching till the day I die. Or, like Prof. Cuthbert Binns, die in the faculty lounge and then get up to teach class.

  • Nov. 14, 2011, 10:40 p.m. CST

    Why an interview and not a review?

    by TopHat

    Is AICN even thinking about the site long term? What, do you think you can compete with deadline.com's exclusives? Are you just going to do interivews, set visits, and mainly positive reviews? I've been writing this forever, but, why aren't you doing script reviews? NO ONE else is doing this. It would give you an edge. Honestly, I'm starting to think this site is just for the writers to use it as a career stepping stone. Like, Moriarty getting a cushy job at hitfix.com sucking up to the studios and constantly talking about his kids...

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 2:18 a.m. CST

    Stare into the abyss, and an albino crocodile stares back.

    by Dennis_Moore

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 2:23 a.m. CST

    Saw this at the Landmark...

    by Andrew Coleman

    In Los Angeles and it's an amazing film. Very touching in many ways. Herzog was there too and that was a real treat. Very classy man. Great interview. Ignore the morons yelping about how they want more bitching on this site and less interviews.

  • one of a kind...probably the greatest working documentarian...certainly the most unique

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 6:53 a.m. CST

    Herzog always has a different slant on things

    by DementedCaver

    He seems to bring a more artistic frame of mind into his creations. Fascinating to watch. Looks like another Herzog movie that I'll have to hunt down like a dirty dog to find.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 7:01 a.m. CST

    Last Rights?

    by Seven_of_Borgnine

    Typo or pun?

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 7:27 a.m. CST

    Break in time and save the animal's life?

    by Nozoki

    So it's a time travel movie?

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 7:57 a.m. CST

    Squirrel does not exist in this dojo

    by Cobra--Kai

    Should have put up a spoiler warning about the squirrel dying. Hardly any point seeing the movie now.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 8 a.m. CST

    by Cobra--Kai

    Oh wait, the squirrel survived? Cool. I smell a sequel... INTO THE ABYSS 2: THE HIBERNATOR

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 8:09 a.m. CST

    by Cobra--Kai

    INTO THE ABYSS. A tale of death. A tale of life. A tail of a squirrel.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 8:12 a.m. CST

    by Cobra--Kai

    Probably should have put the squirrel on the poster cos that image they went with looks kinda depressing. I guess they're hoping for word of mouth about the squirrel to bring in the family audiences.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 8:14 a.m. CST

    Herzog is sublime.

    by butterbean

    You are a very lucky man Mr. Beaks. Very jealous over here. I also appreciate Herzog's comment on Texans. We're all not bloodthirsty, barbecue eating, rednecks.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 8:43 a.m. CST

    Yeah Because Murderers deserve more compassion

    by MaxHeadroom

    Yeah, get rid of that darned old death penalty because Murderers deserve more compassion than the innocent victims they erased from our lives. Who doesn't love a murderous scumbag, right?

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 8:53 a.m. CST

    I go back and forth...

    by nemov

    on the death penalty, but Herzog is a class act. His last answer shows what kind of man he is.

  • Reading the Q&A, Herzog isn't really going for the standard compassion angle you're talking about.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 10:24 a.m. CST

    WARNING: POLITICAL TROLL

    by dr sauch

    If there is even the metaphysical possibility that one innocent person could ever be executed, then you can't have a death penalty. Since the justice system is obviously fallible (look to the number of wrongfully convicted that have been set free by the innocence project, etc), we can't have capital punishment. Real simple, no amount of retributive justice is worth the possibility of an innocent execution. There is literally no counter argument.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 10:34 a.m. CST

    Plus, the effect of death penalties on crime is unproven

    by kidicarus

    So the only real argument for having a death penalty is preserving the concept of an eye for an eye. "You killed someone, so you must die". It's the one glaring inconsistency in the justice system, where for almost any other crime the sentence is jail time or monetary damages paid.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 11:46 a.m. CST

    One Innocent Man Executed?

    by Kentucky Colonel

    Why do we still have this barbaric practice when it has been proven that there have been Multiple Innocents executed? Oh, Republicans. My Bad. Fuck the human race. Nature has something really nasty in store for us in the near future. And we deserve it. Paging Dr. No....Paging Dr. No....it's time, Doctor. No death penalty. Lock them up and let them be ass-raped by the hardest of the hard hitting pipe layers. I can think of nothing worse than that. ASS RAPED UNTIL YOU DIE, SCUM! And if an innocent man is ass-raped, we can at least say "My Bad" and give him some Preparation H. Hard to do that with a dead guy.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 12:50 p.m. CST

    kentucky colonel...

    by Blue_Demon

    Bill Clinton is for the death penalty. I'm sure quite a few registered Democrats don't like the idea of a murderer watching cable TV while their loved one rots in the ground. There was a documentary a while back - the name escapes me - about a man who murdered several women and got life in prison. They showed him enjoying his place in prison society. He was asked if he enjoyed "fucking men" and he smiled and said, "yes," and if he enjoyed "being fucked by men" and he smiled and said, "yes." This was asked as he was sitting at a table with friends playing cards and smoking a cigarette. Not trying to start some shit or anything...(usually, on these boards, an opinion not along the same lines is grounds for name-calling and whatnot.) This sounds like one interesting movie. Can't go wrong with Herzog.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 1:12 p.m. CST

    proevad

    by AsimovLives

    You know what, i think I agree with you, Herzog might just be the best filmmaker ever. Or at the very least, one of the very top best from the last 50 years.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 1:18 p.m. CST

    Werner Herzog, a true great

    by AsimovLives

    This guy is just fantastic, both as a filmmakaer and as a person. What a character! He also does brillant audio comentaries for his mvie's DVDs. If ever there was an argument in favour of audio comentaries, he's it.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 1:48 p.m. CST

    asimovlives

    by proevad

    I normally list Kubrick on top--then Herzog--then Hitchcock...but I've been really into Herzog the last couple of years. Watching and re-watching all of his stuff. There's not a stinker to be found anywhere--and a ton of it is just flat out brilliant.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 2:54 p.m. CST

    proevad

    by AsimovLives

    Indeed. There is, at least to my knowledge, two colelction about Werner Herzog's movies, one with his collaboartion with Klaus Kinski, and the other without Kinski, which also has many cinematic marvers. Herzog's movies with Kinski are all too well know, and some o of his best. I have an almost addiction to Herzog's NOSFERATU. It's my favorite Herzog movie. however, there's also other slike Aguirre and Fritzcarraldo which are excelent. However, ther is this litle known movie they both did, their last movie together, called COBRA VERDE, which is just excelent. This movie should be better known. It was also the movie in which Herzog finally said enough about Kinski and refused to make another movie with him ever again. Well, it took him 5 movie,s when all other directors it just took them one movie. Herzog is pure badass. Of the other movies made without Kinski, there's so many treasures like STROSKY, CASPER HAUSEN.... hell, the list is just enourmous! And his documentaries are not just a recent thing for him, he in nfact started that way, making docs, like FATA MORGANA, one of his earliest movies. FATA MORGANA was quite influential, and inspired later movies like Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Baraka. It's as you said, you can't go wrong with Herzog.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 3:24 p.m. CST

    Cobra Verde is badass

    by rev_skarekroe

    I like to think of Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde as a the Herzog/Kinski white man in the jungle trilogy.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 3:37 p.m. CST

    So...

    by Dollar Bird

    ...you didn't ask him about that new Brady Bunch movie he's directing? Tsk.

  • Nov. 15, 2011, 3:44 p.m. CST

    Cobra Verde

    by proevad

    It's great. I've only seen it once. Not like the other two in the unofficial Aguirre trilogy--which I've probably watched at least 5 times each. I don't have a great copy of Cobra--got lucky and saw it at a festival years ago.