‘I know the hearts of men. And that is why I am a director.’
Werner Herzog handles grim matters in his work as a whole with genuine love and familiarity, and the quote above is no flippant boast: he does fully identify with his subjects and their suffering. He is, however, rarely sympathetic, and instead reveals humanity in the materiality of being human. The honesty of the flesh, the absurdity of the sacred, the enduring equivalence of meaninglessness that all men share. Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life finds its foothold here. In this documentary about life on death row, Herzog does not linger on eviscerating questions of guilt versus innocence. Instead, the film is concerned with the banality of the immanence of death, the curious paradox of denial and commitment in the mind of the living-about-to-be-dead, and their strange hybrid communities where the families of criminals and their victims overlap to create an unwilling and unwanted extended family in mourning.
Herzog’s hallmark co-option of melodramatic sentiment also serves as an eccentric form of comedy, buoying his scrutiny of human ethics. In the film, he claims that as a German who survived the Second World War, and as a ‘guest’ in America, he has no position of moral authority from which to condemn the American judicial system. Even this statement contains a playful double meaning. Conversely, the state-mandated philosophy surrounding the execution of condemned men is curiously clumsy and archaic. There has seemingly been some attempt by unnamed governing bodies to address the praxis of execution, and the extent to which the prisoner is conscious of its ‘variables’ as relative factors in his own mortality - when, where, how. Of equal or greater concern, though, is the extent to which these devices are used to shield the executioners (known collectively in Texas as the Tie-Down Team) from the very terms of Herzog’s tongue-in-cheek allusion to state-sanctioned killing in Germany, as is the problematic role of a shared religious faith as a coping mechanism for victims of crime, criminals and representatives of the state apparatus.
There is currently an accompanying series of one-hour episodes airing on Channel 4 that deal with other death row inmates and their trajectories towards death. Herzog is quick to point out that he has spent no more than 60 minutes each with any participant in the film and the TV series - having measured time allocated to his interactions with people who have lost a loved one, either to crime or to prison, against the constraints of time allotted visitors of death row inmates as determined by state correctional facilities. The film is often cold, lacking the wild outbursts of violence and madness Herzog is known for, but it is also darkly funny in its peculiar earnestness. Its purest moments are those that show emotions clearly groomed for the camera, rehearsed and played out in their entirety. Oddly, it is in the most manufactured and rehearsed demonstrations for the camera that the visceral conflict of the situation reveals itself; in tears unshed – glimpsed or swallowed, rather than in the choreographic design of yet-unbaked cookies and dead bodies in a suburban American household.