‘Into the Abyss’ dives deep

By Drew Hunt

Legendary German director Werner Herzog has spent the better part of a decade moving between narrative and documentary-style filmmaking. These days, it’s arguable that he’s better known for the latter, so it comes as no surprise that his newest film is another exploration of human behavior.

The film, called “Into the Abyss,” profiles the aftermath of a triple homicide committed by death row inmate Michael Perry and his accomplice, Jason Burkett. Perry and Burkett attempted to steal a car from the Conroe, Texas home of Sandra Stottler, who was shot and killed by either Burkett or Perry—both claim the other is responsible—in the process. Stottler’s adopted son and his friend also fell victim to Perry and Burkett that night.

The film begins with an interview with Perry, a mere eight days before he’s put to death. From there, the film unfolds like an anthropological investigation, with Herzog labeling the death penalty as the final senseless act in a long series.

“Into the Abyss” has erroneously been labeled an “anti-death penalty film.” Though Herzog explicitly states his opposition to capital punishment, the film is by no means pushing any sort of political or ideological belief. “Into the Abyss” arrives as yet another sterling addition to his documentary canon, but Herzog deviates from his most tried-and-true theme of the human infatuation and relationship with nature. Instead, the film is a quizzical examination of human fate and consequence.

Herzog doesn’t dwell on Perry’s looming execution or even the details of his sentencing—the fact that Burkett is serving life in prison for the crime while Perry was sentenced to death goes glaringly unmentioned—but rather on the circumstances that brought these people together. Most of the film’s most engaging moments happen outside of prison walls, in which Herzog queries friends and relatives of the murderers and their victims.

What arises are stories in which education is immaterial, a predilection toward criminality runs in the family and death and incarceration are ever-present parts of life.

The question at the center of “Into the Abyss” seems to be, “Where does it all end?” Herzog goes so far as to make it clear that, despite the definitiveness of the death penalty, it scarcely provides closure or justice to the victims’ families.

But the buck stops there. Unlike his previous films, in which he very rarely shies away from espousing his own perspective, Herzog remains surprisingly absent from the film. His presence is only felt during the film’s testimonials—one of which finds him telling Perry, “I do not have to like you, but I respect you as a human,” minutes after meeting him for the first time. In scenes in which his engrossing narration is usually featured, simple title cards propel the story along.

For this reason, “Into the Abyss” is both a challenging and welcoming addition to Herzog’s filmography. Without his ethereal voiceover, the film is devoid of his trademark bluntness and probing inquiries. But the added ambiguity helps in ways, especially when it comes to remaining an objective observer of an intricate and delicate situation. In the end, “Into the Abyss” emerges as his most stirring and involving film since 2005’s “Grizzly Man.”