Skirting the Abyss: Werner Herzog by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Anya Jeremko-Greenwold enters the cold, calculating, and instinct-driven world of Werner Herzog at a roundtable discussion of his recent Into the Abyss.

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Ditta Miranda Jasjfi in Vollmond in Wim Wenders’ PINA. ©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release.

Werner Herzog’s latest film might not boast the usual exotic locale (it’s set in Texas) or unearth a startling culture never before imagined by the movie-going masses, as so many of his previous projects have. Into the Abyss does, however, delve deep into a territory particular to the American experience, a territory most of us are lucky to be only vaguely familiar with: that peculiar culture of organized death, harnessed within the arena of capital punishment.

Rather than seeking to reveal objective truths, Herzog merely gathers information. In preparation for the film, he read 800 pages of the case file in question and perused every single transcript of witness accounts. He looked at every crime scene photo and video. “The cave film. Did I do that last year? Yes, last year. It’s going so fast,” Herzog remarked thoughtfully during our roundtable discussion, apparently bemused by his own crowded schedule. Next he will act in a movie alongside Tom Cruise; after that, he goes on to teach “Rogue Film School,” a workshop in which he instructs aspiring filmmakers on how best to forge documents, steal cameras, and generally sneer in the face of safe and sensible movie-making.

For Into the Abyss, Herzog focused upon a court case involving triple homicide, numerous broken lives, and one red herring (the alleged motive behind a wild plethora of bloodshed): a red Camaro. 28-year-old Michael Perry is on death row, counting the days until he is to be murdered by the state of Texas; he stole the Camaro and killed three people in the process, and Herzog wants to interview him. “Interview” being the wrong word, presumably, as Herzog corrected me: “I do not do interviews. I have no catalogue of questions like you have. I have no idea what’s coming at me.” Perry isn’t the only one who chats with the director and confesses to his camera; the film is comprised largely of “conversations” (this is the word I was advised to employ instead) between Herzog and the family members of those affected by the crime, and some others less directly associated but well-accustomed to the craft of the death penalty. All such violent transgressions, Herzog goes so far as to suggest, will result in the ruin of not only the lives of the victim and the criminal, but also the lives of those closest to them.

“What made you want to do a film about the death penalty?” an eager journalist in my group asked. “It’s not a film about the death penalty,” Herzog replied somberly. “Oh! Well … a film about the human soul?” the journalist queried nervously, with the air of one clutching at straws. Herzog tends to avoid overt political statements, preferring to ask the questions but not to provide the answers. With Into the Abyss, he has finally chosen an issue to get behind: Herzog does not agree with the death penalty, believing human beings don’t have the right to execute one another. Still, he assured us, “this is not an issue film, or a debate about the death penalty.” Herzog would prefer to avoid narrowing things down, particularly when it comes to the content of his movies.

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Michael Perry during his interview in Werner Herzog’s INTO THE ABYSS. Photo courtesy of CDTV. A Sundance Selects release.

Herzog presumes that the men and women involved in this documentary might not have agreed to participate in a film definitively about capital punishment. It seems people are more comfortable making fewer bold statements; they would rather just tell their own stories. Maybe people do not realize that what provides the meaning behind any grandiose political agenda are those minute, personal struggles. It’s difficult for us to care about big concepts, but it’s somehow easy to be affected by specific tragedies and triumphs. Herzog does not hope to make specific claims; yet his documentaries are always narrated in tones of neutrality and empathy, even when starring the nuttiest of folk, and thus it is in Herzog’s ability to really hear people that he makes the boldest statement of all: everyone is worth listening to. Even criminals, even the mentally insane, even the incorrigible Klaus Kinski (a man Herzog seriously considered murdering at one point in his life, though I notice there is no mention of this amidst all his newfound disapproval of manslaughter).

“I was not really spending time with these people,” Herzog informed a journalist who wondered about the all-too-brief moments he had with those men interviewed in jail. “I spent most of the time setting up my cameras.” Herzog does not want to get chummy. He is cold, even calculating. But people open up to him. I wanted to ask how he does it, how he coaxes strangers into disclosing painful secrets without ever showing a hint of self-consciousness on camera. “Well, that’s my profession,” he replied, maddeningly. “I wouldn’t be a filmmaker if I didn’t have it in me. You can never learn in film school to ask a question. When I asked the priest [from Into the Abyss] to ‘tell me about an encounter with a squirrel …’ 15 seconds after I asked him this question, he’s unraveling, and you see his heart. Why do I ask it? I don’t even know myself. You have to have the right instincts to know how to open the chest of a man and look at his heart.” The squirrel question is an inquiry so weird and wonderful most of us could never come up with it (and furthermore, what do squirrels have to do with the death penalty? You got me). It remains unclear if Herzog feels concerned with whether these on-screen disclosures of the victim’s family members, who shed bitter tears in front of his camera, is cathartic or damaging to their morale.

Herzog is right about one thing—he has the right instincts. Ironically, I’m not certain he realizes that in each of these films he is not only gazing deep into the craggy abyss of the human soul or studying the stymied human condition, but also looking deep within himself. He is answering the questions that both bother and fascinate him—so many of his filmic protagonists (Timothy Treadwell of Grizzly Man, his infamous collaborator Klaus Kinski, the eccentric scientists filmed in Antarctica) are strikingly similar to himself, with their adventuresome spirits and willingness to exist within their own solipsistic dream-worlds. “I am not trying to make these people into outlaw heroes,” Herzog told us, explaining his reluctance to idealize the chain gang participants of Into the Abyss. Rather, Herzog allows the neuroses and lunacy and poetry of his characters to emerge. He grants them this. He respects them.

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Suhair Abu Hanna as E.S. as a child, Samar Qudha Tanus as Mother (1970-1980) and Saleh Bakri as Fuad in The Time That Remains. Photo by Marcel Hartmann.

Michael Perry was purportedly annoyed by his dialogue with Herzog, as the filmmaker dictated the terms of their interview and would not give Perry the chance to say what he wanted. Poor Perry didn’t appreciate Herzog’s genius M.O.: his documentaries are more often forays into his own psyche than into the subjects they claim to consider. Nearing the end of our interview (term used lightly), another journalist brought up songwriter Steve Earle, a man Herzog had never heard of. Earle apparently spent a lot of time with someone on death row, and now maintains it was the most affecting experience of his life, reminiscing that he cried when the convict was executed. Was the impact of Perry’s death similar for Herzog? “I’m suspicious about these public emotions,” Herzog answered quickly, “… don’t publicize how much you cried.” This attitude is not altogether unexpected, as Herzog is ever-calm and collected, with a low tolerance for sentimentality; yet he always finds a way to elicit laughter in his responses of doubtlessly deliberate toughness. “No, I did not cry,” he says conclusively. “But both my editor and I started smoking again. I won’t cry over watching an execution. I’m in a more serious business than that singer.”

Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic based in New York City.

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