One reason that Werner Herzog’s docs are so compelling and entertaining is that his powerful personality is all over them, commenting, narrating, querying. Herzog’s docs, as lauded as they are, are often overlooked by the Oscar documentary branch, which nominated while Encounters at the End of the World but did not recognize Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (which was not screened in 3-D). (Michael Moore cites these oversights in his successful quest for changing the Academy rules.) “It’s not easy to figure out how the system works,” says Herzog. “It doesn’t give me sleepless nights. This one is more what they think the documentary is supposed to be. It’s so straightforward. No radioactive albino crocodiles. No commentary.”
True, Herzog’s Into the Abyss is an almost shocking high-wire act in its simplicity. While we hear Herzog’s voice asking questions of a series of people who were either perpetrators or people impacted by a senseless Texas crime spree, there is no narration, no embellishment. This is stark, powerful filmmaking at its best as the ever-curious Herzog digs into “life and death and the families of victims,” he says in our flip cam Telluride interview, below. “I am not in the business of establishing guilt or innocence. This is not an issue film. I want to look deeper into the human condition. The goal is to look deep inside the heart of ourselves.”
Herzog chose to grill several Death Row prisoners –one of whom he interviewed eight days before his execution. Another one somehow impregnates the woman he eventually marries, who fell in love with him while he was in prison; she is pregnant during Herzog’s interview, and her eventual husband’s life is saved by a heartfelt plea from his father, who is also serving a life sentence. Herzog chose the crime because it was so senseless. “Three people died for the purpose of a car they were in possession of for 72 hours,” he says. It fascinates him that the hijacked vehicle wound up in an impound lot with a tree growing through it.
Next up: several fiction films are in the works, as well as an Investigation/Discovery mini-series of one-hour programs focused on individual death row inmates.