A Punishing Practice

Werner Herzog’s ‘Into the Abyss’ measures the emotional costs of the death penalty

Filmmaker Werner Herzog interviewed convicted killer Michael Perry eight days before Perry was executed in Texas.

If Werner Herzog is all worked up about the death penalty in the U.S., he certainly doesn’t show it. The German writer, director and producer perhaps best known for his 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man” says he “respectfully disagrees” with the practice of capital punishment. And his new film, “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life,” isn’t resoundingly political. Instead, it’s a quiet examination of how the death penalty affects everyone touched by capital crime.

Herzog focuses on one crime, a 2001 triple homicide in Texas for which Michael Perry was put to death in 2010. There isn’t much doubt as to the guilt of Perry, who was 28 years old (but looked much younger — unnervingly so) at the time of his execution. But Herzog wasn’t out to find an innocent person and set him free. “This isn’t that kind of film, like Errol Morris’ [1988’s ‘The Thin Blue Line’] or the one that led to the release of the three men in Memphis [1996’s ‘Paradise Lost’]. I’m not in the business of establishing guilt or innocence.” Rather, Herzog lets the people affected by the crime and the death penalty tell the story, including a correctional worker who supervised more than 125 executions and then quit after a severe attack of PTSD.

The film does not show an execution — not Perry’s, who was executed eight days after his final interview with Herzog, nor anyone else’s. “No. 1, nobody’s allowed to do that. And if it were allowed, I would never do that,” Herzog says. “There shouldn’t be execution in the first place, and nobody should watch one.”

One of the people Perry was convicted of killing was Sandra Stotler, whose daughter Lisa is an emotional linchpin of the film. One of its most gut-punching moments is when Lisa turns a picture of her mother — strikingly blond and vibrant — to the camera. It’s a moment Herzog lucked into.

“There was nothing that deliberate” about the shot, he says. “Lisa simply started to talk about her mother first. The photos were on the table and she could pick them up at any time. Sometimes, all of the sudden, the person on camera creates the dramatic effect that is unplanned. And it’s the best.”

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film, arts and events for Express.
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Kristen Page-Kirby · November 9, 2011