Paranoia has long been Werner Herzog's preferred tropic, morbidity his comfort zone. His films brim with self-inflicted wounds, crazed schemers, and ruinous hubris. "Into the Abyss" is different; it shifts the frame. We have seen the enemy, and he is us.
Set eight days before the execution of Michael James Perry, for the murder of Sandra Stotler in 2001, Herzog's documentary does not, like Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line," question Perry's conviction. It does not, like Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans," reintroduce the evidence. Rather, with straining strings and straightforward camerawork, moving backward and forward in time, it investigates the crime in question with an eye to answering a single question: what justifies allowing the state to kill its citizens?
The style that Herzog has developed since "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" serves his purpose well. There is no muddiness about his probing presence. His German-accented voice strikes out repeatedly from behind the camera, and in one visually compelling moment, as he interviews Perry through the prison's bulletproof glass, Herzog's shadow passes across Perry's face.
What becomes clear, as the film marshals together interviews, archival footage, photographs, evidence, and data, is just how blurry are the borderlands of the human experience. What distinguishes between life imprisonment and execution? What distinguishes between the teenager who commits murder, and his friend who ends up dead? What distinguishes the filmmaker from the film's subject? In the context of these existential doubts, the failure to end the government's useless program of killing becomes our own. Any sense of the death penalty's purpose is missing from the film, perhaps because it has none.
"Why does God allow capital punishment?" Herzog asks in the early moments, as the camera pans across the prison cemetery, the gravestones marked only by numbers. "Into the Abyss," though, shows us that even the most violent of criminals can't be reduced to a code or shorthand. "There's no longer a question about my innocence, that question is out the door," Perry tells Herzog. "The question is what they're gonna do about it now." (Here's Anne Thompson's flip cam interview with Herzog.)
If ever a documentary subject could be said to live at the borderlands of the human experience, it would be Timothy Treadwell.
The fascinating subject of Herzog's 2005 film "Grizzly Man," Treadwell spent 13 summers living among Alaskan bears before one killed him and his girlfriend in 2003. Over time, he amassed hours and hours of video footage, which forms the basis of the film, supplemented by interviews with Treadwell's loved ones and Herzog's moving, poetic narration.
Alongside the natural beauty of the surrounds, Herzog presents Treadwell as a man — incidentally, not unlike himself — increasingly searching for clarity and calmness outside the offerings of mainstream capitalist society. Treadwell's moments of worry or anxiety cluster around the expectations of society; narrating the scene as bears wrestle and catch salmon behind him, however, his face breaks into a kind of manic grin. Questions of respect, fairness, and accuracy are inherent to documentary filmmaking, but "Grizzly Man" raises them with greater intensity — its subject is dead, its content controversial, its style more confrontational than sentimental.
I think, though, that Herzog has been judicious in his selection of material, alluding to the secret terrors the film holds without exposing them directly. In a way, as is true of the cemetery of numbers in "Into the Abyss," the baffle between viewer and film only makes the experience more harrowing. He conjures a dismembered body with a wristwatch and a park ranger's terrible memory; he does not play the audio captured in the fatal bear attack but shows us an image of him listening to it.
Treadwell, by the end of the film, comes to seem more and more troubled, manic, even deranged or suicidal. Whether you agree with this interpretation of not, it is hard not to see why the tropic of paranoia engages the filmmaker so. Insanity is not too many steps distant from sanity, and tracing the line between them, for Herzog, is a matter of life and death.