‘Into the Abyss’ not a classically styled investigatory piece

Into the Abyss

Directed by Werner Herzog

Germany, Canada, 2011

Werner Herzog’s second documentary released this year is surprisingly similar to the first. Where his Cave of Forgotten Dreams looked at ancient caverns in Chauvet, the more recent Into the Abyss also excavates, but this time the subject matter is death row inmates and a vicious crime in Conroe, Texas.

When Herzog excavates it’s different than what we might consider typical documentary excavation. As his Caves less explored the history and unknown and focused instead on a metaphysical rumination of time, his Into the Abyss forgoes a classically styled investigatory piece in favor of a dissection of human nature, emptiness and, again, time.

Death row inmate Matthew Perry and his convicted accomplice Jason Burkett are only one of the many angles that Herzog lenses as he delves into the murder of Sandra Stotler, her son Adam, and his friend James Richardson. Among the other subjects are Stotler’s daughter, Burkett’s father, Richardson’s brother, and Burkett’s wife. The effect is more a meditation on the grief of the affected families on both sides than it is on the crime itself. Indeed, though the opportunity clearly arises from interview to interview, Herzog refuses to ask (or include in the finished film) any recollection or protestation regarding the actual crime.

As in his other documentaries, Herzog’s style here features very few softening dissolves. He doesn’t attempt to hide his cuts as he often jump cuts mid-interview and from subject to subject. He divides this film into chapters, including a prologue and epilogue. The music is orchestral and harrowing, and Herzog’s own voice, alongside that of his subjects’ fills the rest of the soundtrack. When Perry broaches the subject of time, Herzog jumps on it, digressing and folding his narrative away from violence, and into the nature of waiting for one’s own death.

This all adds up to something familiar to those acquainted with Herzog, yet a far cry from an A&E piece or even its likely comparable, Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. Unlike these, Into the Abyss is not out to exonerate, or even inform. We learn about the details of the crime, but much, including both opinion and fact, is left intentionally unspoken. Through Herzog’s book-like, operatic aesthetic, and his line of questioning, we are instead treated to a sometimes-painful treatise on loss and sometimes-funny look at humanity.

Herzog seems truly fascinated by some of his subjects, particularly one young man vaguely connected to Burkett, whom the director awkwardly presses again and again for assurance of his current situation. Even when interviewing Perry, Herzog seems almost afraid to ask any upsetting questions, perhaps out of respect for the young man’s imminent death, perhaps because he too is unsettled by the face of death when so confronted with it.

Herzog is an expert at using found footage, and Into the Abyss is no exception. Where Errol Morris may have set out to recreate the crime, Herzog is content with looking at its remnants. Set to music or silence, crime scene video are upsetting cause and effect reminders when juxtaposed with present-day interviews; a tree growing in the middle of the red Camaro – the car at the root of the crime – is reason enough for the camera to push forward and reflect on the absurdities of past and present.


– Neal Dhand


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