BFI London Film Festival 2011: ‘Into the Abyss’


Werner Herzog returns for the second time this year with another extremely powerful and moving documentary, Into the Abyss (2011). After the success of Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) earlier this year it was hard to imagine where Herzog would go next, and the German director could not have picked a more radically different subject – the US capital punishment system.

Into the Abyss focuses on one case of a triple homicide, perpetrated by Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who killed a women and two children in order to steal a sports car. Herzog focuses on the meaninglessness of their crime, interviewing friends and family of the victims as well as the two murderers – one of whom is filmed eight days before the set date of his execution. It takes a documentary filmmaker of Herzog’s calibre to handle such difficult subject matter, and has done so with the usual finesse and skill one would expect through a series of harrowing interviews.

What makes this documentary special is the manner in which Herzog draws out intriguing answers from all his interviewees. There are two rather startling moments in the film; the first is when a man breaks down after performing his 125th execution, and the second when a woman discusses how she felt witnessing the execution of the murderer who killed her family. Both these moment reveal a raw and emotive film that is treated with the ultimate sensitivity.

Worthy of note is how Herzog draws in religion into this documentary. The most obvious use is in the exploration of issues such as divine judgement and justification, that many victims will invoke for retribution. Herzog turns these Old Testament attitudes on their head, questioning whether the New Testament and Christian ethics play a role in capital punishment. Importantly, this is not done in a heavy-handed manner – Herzog instead pushes the audience into questioning the issues being debated on screen, no matter how emotive or difficult the subject matter.

Into the Abyss is a hugely powerful film, shot with elegance and sensitivity to both victims and perpetrators. Herzog has created a challenging and important film that all should watch with an open mind and allow themselves to engage with such difficult issues.

For more BFI London Film Festival 2011 coverage, simply follow this link.

Joe Walsh