Herzog Delves ‘Into the Abyss’ of Capital Punishment

Into the Abyss (2011) is a look into the capital punishment system in Texas through the case of two teenagers who murdered three people for a car. Of the two teens, one entered a plea and received a lighter sentence, while the other received the death penalty. Into the Abyss is not a race-to-prevent-execution documentary, but more a meditation on the larger question of what execution means.

The opening scene of Into the Abyss sets up the rather difficult question that runs throughout this Investigation Discovery documentary. In that scene, Werner Herzog poses the question: “Why does God allow capital punishment?” The reverend replies, “I don’t know the answer.” Herzog asserts his position against the death penalty early on, but he allows room for others to express myriad viewpoints.

This documentary features some very tough interviews, not only for those giving them but also for us watching them. Probably one of the toughest is with Michael James Perry, the one who received the death penalty and who was scheduled to be executed within eight days. As Herzog and he set up for the interview, Perry is smiling and laughing — not the expected behavior for someone about to die.

A police officer walks us through the different crime scenes and explains how the case started with one victim and expanded to three. His tour is intercut with police video and recent footage of the scenes. As the events of the crime unfold, interviews with those affected bring in the fuller picture, not only about the crimes, but more so about the people involved and the people affected by them. We meet the siblings of the two boys who were killed. We also meet Jason Aaron Burkett, the one who got the lighter sentence, and Burkett’s father, who also is in jail.

Two of the more interesting interviews address the issue of capital punishment specifically. He interviews Fred Allen, a former captain of the death house team. Allen describes the routine that the entire team goes through to take the convicted through his or her final hours. He recalls doing more than 125 executions, but his first female execution finds him realizing he cannot perform his job anymore. He quit, lost his pension, and moved on to other things. Lisa Stolter-Balloun, the daughter of the woman murdered, offers a different take. She attended the execution and felt better after Perry died, but she also states she would have been happy if he had received life without parole.

This documentary reminded me of Herzog’s fascination with the little details and the stories behind them. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, for example, one of the scientists mentions that he was part of the circus, and that led to a small tangent in their interview. We see these again in Into the Abyss, wherein Herzog asks about several tattoos and their significance. The tattoos lead to further revelations about the men who have them.

Unlike some of his other documentaries, Into the Abyss is less abstract and less open-ended in its speculation. Herzog himself appears less frequently than he does in his other films, allowing more time for the extended interviews. I wonder if those changes are because of its inclusion in under Investigation Discovery’s umbrella.

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