The Ecstatic Truth of Werner's Abyss
10 April 2012
If you're thinking Werner Herzog's latest documentary film, Into The Abyss: A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death, is a film about the death penalty - you'd be wrong. Herzog has railed against the strictures of Cinéma Vérité and neither realism nor factual truths are significant in the film. It is steeped in inconsistencies and unchallenged gaps of credibility. Throughout there seems to be something slightly off-kilter, slightly surreal and drowsy. As if the horrors have been washed, clothed and sedated ready for inspection. But this is of no concern because the purpose of the film is to illicit the "ecstatic truth''.
This story is a tale of two disadvantaged teenagers who senselessly shoot and kill three people to steal two cars, and for the bragging rights. After 72 hours and a gunfight, the two were arrested, tried and convicted of murder; both claiming innocence. Michael Perry was sentenced to death. Jason Burckett, his convicted partner in crime, escaped the death penalty following a heart-tugging plea from his time-serving recidivist father. Jason's sentence was commuted to 40 years imprisonment.
We are introduced to Michael ten years after the killings and just eight days before his execution. He still looks like a lanky clumsy teenager, a politely spoken, self-proclaimed Christian who appears to have recently been subjected to the rough attention of a vindictive barber. There is something tragically comical in witnessing this 'monster' spending the last minutes of his life obligingly wiping away smears from his side of the glass partition to help the filmmakers.
Jason? Well he gets to live, and at the beginning of his sentence… oh, go see the film. (Werner thinks we should all try to watch films in the cinema). Various people connected to the boys and their murder victims tell more intriguing and sad tales; ripples of ripples dissipating into the future.
Herzog's questions probe, gently searching for an unguarded truth. Christian terms are scattered through the language of most of the characters in this film. When Herzog asks a prison chaplain, "Why does God allow capital punishment?", we are left wondering about the chaplain's loss of composure.
Herzog takes us gently but insistently to visit the characters and events surrounding the tragedies that took place some ten years before. As if being guided by the ghost of Twin Peaks past, present and future, we sit uncomfortably as witnesses to the awful things that were, the things that are, and the reformed executioner (pointing a chubby finger to the gravestone yet to come) implore us to live the "dash" that precedes our unscheduled deaths.