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Motherboard Meets Werner Herzog: Into the Abyss, for a Brief, Strange Moment

Werner Herzog on his new documentary, how to have a conversation on camera, and the limits of documentary film.
December 1, 2011, 4:50pm

Werner Herzog only has half an hour. He's busy with many projects, including a new art installation, and he receives many requests. But he's also keenly attentive to the value of each moment, to the brief glimpse into someone else's mind and soul that each encounter affords. These are the kind of things you think about when making a documentary film, especially when the person you are interviewing only has exactly eight days to live.

So Herzog wastes no time. He immediately tells Michael Perry, the death row inmate at the center of his new film "Into the Abyss" that he's aware of the terrible decisions and circumstances that landed him there, but that "doesn't necessarily mean that I have to like you." And for all of Perry's amiability, it is hard to like him. It's clear that while Herzog doesn't begrudge the grim way of life he finds in Texas, he doesn't approve of the state taking the life of its citizens. But unlike some other death row tales, there is little to redeem or explain these crimes or these punishments. There are no simple answers, no uncovering of injustice, no silver lining. The situation is so grim that when Herzog and his editor began to examine the footage he had made during a whirlwind shoot, they both took up smoking again.

Amidst the chaos and depravity that he exposes in the Texas town of Conroe – just next door to a hamlet aptly called Cut and Shoot – the only comfort the filmmaker can offer comes in the form of these brief, unvarnished encounters with the people who are trying to cope with the difficulty of living and of dying. Because many of these encounters lasted less than an hour, and because there would be no follow-up visits, Herzog excavates the feelings of the people he meets by dispensing with emotion, speaking candidly, asking the questions that aren't obvious but that get right to the point. "You have to read the person correctly," he says. "You have to understand, how do you force his chest open and look at his heart."

When he speaks to the chaplain in charge of administering last rites to death row inmates, a scene that starts the film, Herzog elicits little more than platitudes about the task, about God, and the sanctity of life. But then the director's voice drops from behind his handheld camera a simple suggestion: "Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel." It's droll and strange in that Herzog way, but the question hits him, says Herzog "like lighting."

In these moments, Herzog's other asset is his electric voice. His hypnotic accent is as famous to lovers of art films as David Attenborough's baritone is to lovers of nature films, which is partly why it has become such fertile ground for parody (and self-parody). But by hovering between the two poles of that voice – the intimacy of a philosopher and the distance of a foreign anthropologist – Herzog finds some of the redemption that our strange circumstances often hide. It's a voice that, inadvertently or not, allows for a bit of light to slip in, a hint of empathy, a smile, a hug, even when time is running out and things look hellishly dark.

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