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Film Review

Into the Abyss

The development of small, high definition digital video cameras has transformed documentary film making. Until recently, a film maker needed large cameras, lighting, a substantial crew, and a lot of money to make a full length documentary film. But with miniaturization and ever larger chips, quality documentary film making became possible for many more film makers. Few recent documentary film makers have been more productive and influential than Werner Herzog. German born, coming to this country as a young man in the 1960's, he began writing and producing both fiction and documentary films. He is staggeringly productive, with nearly 60 films to his credit. His fiction feature films, such as "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972), "Rescue Dawn" (2007), and "Bad Lieutenant" (2009) are the best known to American audiences. But he is probably most identified with his documentary films, a total of 32 (!!) since the late 1970's. For the past 20 years, he has completed almost one per year. Many have won awards: "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" (1997), "The White Diamond" (2004), "Grizzly Man" (2005), "Encounters at the End of the World" (2007), "La Boheme" (2009), "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" (2010), and his latest, "Into the Abyss". In many of his documentaries and some of his fiction films, Herzog is drawn to extreme characters. He films and interviews them in a very low key but direct manner that usually exposes their inner selves. He never offers judgement, and is a good listener.

"Into the Abyss" looks at a horrific crime committed in 2001, in Conroe, Texas. Two young men with a shotgun, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry, kill Sandra Stotler, and a few hours later, her 16 year old son, Adam, and his friend, Jeremy. All this, in order to steal Sandra's red Camaro. Herzog begins with a very moving interview with the prison chaplain, in the prison cemetery. The cemetery contains rows of concrete crosses, only identified by numbers. The chaplain describes how he tries to comfort those being executed, and after a few minutes, can barely continue talking. Death is by lethal injection in Texas, and we see the death chamber itself. Then Herzog breaks the film into chapters. The first is The Crime. Herzog interviews a lieutenant in the sheriff's department, who describes the crime. Then he shows the police crime scene video: a nice suburban house, but with blood splattered on walls, blood on the floor from a body that was dragged, and a small teddy bear knocked to the ground. The video shows the kitchen, with its still unbaked cookies that Sandra was making when she was killed. It continues, showing the lake where Sandra's body was dumped, and a glimpse of her body, underwater, wrapped in blankets. It then shifts to a forest, showing both boys, each killed for the car keys, as they attempted to run away. Herzog interviews both killers in prison, Michael only a week or so before he is executed. He looks so young and innocent, and seems optimistic. The other killer, Jason, is also young and very handsome. Each blames the other for the killings. Michael was sentenced to death, and Jason to 40 years in prison before he can be considered for parole. All this in just the first 20 minutes of the film.

The second chapter, The Dark Side of Conroe, has interviews with the killers, friends, and Jeremy's older brother, He looks very tough, covered in tattoos, but anguished because he had introduced his brother to the killers. Herzog travels through the poor section of Conroe, looking at yards with wrecked cars and general decay, that helped foster an underclass. The third chapter, Time and Emptiness, begins with long takes of the prison, surrounded by walls and a forest of razor wire. And Herzog interviews Delbert Burkett, Jason's father, who has been in prison at least five times, now serving a 40 year sentence for murder. Delbert is genuinely remorseful, stating "my son had trash for a father". The father had appeared at his son's trial. It is shocking to see and hear the father, who also relates that at least one other son is in prison. "Into the Abyss" is filled with these shocks and surprises, as we realize who is being interviewed. The interviews are much more a structure of this film than in any of his other films. His questions are always voiced in that now familiar calm, German accented voice, but deeply probing. And always answered, often with surprising responses. He interviews Sandra's daughter, who holds her mother and brother's photos. It turns out that her father had been hit and killed by a train a few years earlier. But the fourth chapter, A Glimmer of Hope, springs the surprise of surprises, which I don't want to reveal. The fifth and final chapter, The Protocol, begins with a lengthy interview with Fred Allen, a retired prison captain, who had headed the execution team for many years. He has seen 120 executions, and describes the protocol, "I always take care of the left leg [when strapping the prisoner to the table]". Shortly after the execution of the first woman that he helped execute, he had a nervous breakdown, and quit. It is clear that Allen has PTSD, and now works to abolish capital punishment. Herzog's interview with him may be the finest and most affecting in the entire film, which says a lot, given an entire film filled with powerful, riveting interviews.

I have always been a fan of Herzog's documentaries, and think this is his finest. Most of his documentaries are memorable, but this powerful and immensely affecting film pushes the boundaries. It's clear that for the victims' loved ones, the pain never stops. "Into the Abyss" surely will be a nominee for best documentary at the Academy Awards in a few months. It is the perfect counterpart to "Dead Man Walking". But despite its power, this is not a downer film. "Into the Abyss" is really a meditation on evil, loss, and the wisdom of capital punishment, and dramatic proof of Herzog's enormous talent. This is truly a great film, and an important topic that we avoid as a society. Don't miss it. Just opened at the Embarcadero.

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