Saturday, 10 November 2012

Into the Abyss (2011) - Werner Herzog

It's well possible that future generations will look back at Werner Herzog as being a documentarian first and foremost, and a film director a distant second. His films (both documentary and fiction) can be frustrating at times but are always interesting. Throughout his fifty year career he's managed to juggle both features and docs with surprising ease, and is a fascinating person to boot. His best films almost always deal with extremities, quite often man against a hostile environment. Don't forget it was Herzog who hauled a paddle steamer over a mountain in what could easily be argued is his masterpiece - Fitzcarraldo, he also so the legend goes, walked from Munich to Paris to visit a friend, and let's not forget he directed legendary madman Klaus Kinski in not one but five films. So it's fair to say that he lives on the outskirts of the very insanity that he often tries to capture on film. At the heart of all of his work though is a genuine search for answers, as crass as that sounds it truly is the case, and Herzog unlike most other directors on the same path knows which questions to ask and just how to get the answers out of his subjects.

Into the Abyss is a documentary about two convicted killers (Michael Perry and Jason Burkett), who killed three people in order to steal a car. Both received separate trials ending up with Perry landing on death row and Burkett receiving a life sentence. Both blame the other for the crime and proclaim their own innocence. Herzog doesn't get caught up with the trial or ponder if they are innocent or guilty, in fact I think he chose this case because it feels so obvious that they are in fact guilty of their crimes. Instead via a series of interviews Herzog cuts through everything to get down to the rawness at the heart of the crime, the victims families are interviewed as are friends and family of the killers. Herzog's interview technique is incredible, he can be quite brusque but he really manages to drag the best out of people.

Take the priest at the start, who for the first few minutes babbles away with the usual stock church gumph, until Herzog focuses in on something that feels like an offhand quip and verbally pushes the priest into a corner, which results in the films first highlight. His real trump card, the thing he has that no one else has is his voice, his wonderful rolling vocal tones. It's very soothing even when retelling the goriest of stories.

Into the Abyss was compiled from a mere eight hours of interview footage, which makes what you watch feel just all the better. At times it's possible that Herzog steers things in a certain direction by asking very leading questions, but isn't that what all the best interviewers do anyway? Plus when the gold he gets it's as good as it is it seems churlish to complain.

As you can probably tell I thought this was an astounding documentary, and I can't wait to check out the Death Row TV series that Herzog has just made. With mainstream cinema becoming so bland and safe now we're going to find ourselves relying more and more on people like Werner Herzog for anything vaguely interesting. The subtitle for this documentary is 'A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life', and that is really what is at the heart of the film - life & death, death & life. Despite what Perry did I would never wish him dead, and hopefully anyone who is pro death sentence will at least question their beliefs after seeing this. Although as it turns out it's too late for Perry as he was executed eight days after his interview for this film.

So what next for Herzog? After making a string of well received documentaries, being shot at during an interview and directing Nicolas Cage in a bonkers remake of Bad Lieutenant, we'll next see him playing the main villain in the new Tom Cruise film. You gotta love him, you really do.

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