With Into the Abyss Werner Herzog explores the case of two young men convicted for the murder of three people in Texas. One of the men is interviewed just over a week from his execution, the other is in prison serving a life sentence. The story is told through numerous interviews, with everyone from the victims’ families to a former executioner, alongside police crime scene footage. Though Herzog provides no narration or on-screen presence, he can be heard conducting the interviews and it is his curiosity and comment which drives the film.
Herzog takes his time with this documentary, allowing each participant to talk at length about their experience. The effect is very involving; when presented with the victims’ relatives you instantly feel for them but it is hard to condemn the perpetrators to death when you see them on a human level being interviewed.
It seems likely that the point of this documentary, so considered and without bias, is ultimately to speak out against the death penalty. This is evidenced by Herzog asking one relative if they would have been equally happy with life imprisonment as they are with the death sentence; they agree that this would have been justice enough. Thankfully his agenda is not forced upon us, no statistics are used and there are no brutal re-enactments.
With Into the Abyss, Herzog has made a moving documentary focussing on just one of many crimes resulting in someone being put to death by the state. Thought provoking and easily the best documentary of the festival.
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life screens at the London Film Festival today and on Monday.