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Infinite Empathy: Werner Herzog on the Death Penalty

In his latest film, Into the Abyss, the documentary master takes an unabashed stand against the death penalty in the United States.

Into the Abyss: Werner Herzog
Death row inmate Michael Perry / courtesy of CDTV


An old friend of this critic, the Pushcart Prize-nominated writer Earl M. Coleman, used to say that one of the keys to writing good fiction was having the ability to display empathy for all of one’s characters. “Victims all,” he called it, for in real life, even the “bad guys” are victims of something.


Never have I seen a film that deals with the notion of “victims all” as well as Werner Herzog’s latest empathy-fest, Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life. Using a case in Texas that led to one man being put to death and another being sentenced to life in prison, Herzog has crafted a nuanced, multi-layered view of all of the lives intertwined by three senseless murders.


What is remarkable about the film, as it unfolds, is Herzog’s ability to articulate our sense of horror and outrage at those three murders – which were committed by two men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, so that they might steal a red Camaro – at the same time as he creates an equally profound sense of horror at the fact that the state of Texas will end Perry’s life, out of a sense of punitive justice. An equally strong sense of horror is created as Herzog paints portraits of the neglected, poverty-stricken lives that Perry and Burkett lived. It’s obviously not presented as a justification for murder, but the impression comes across that their crime was, in some way, tragically inevitable. I had the chance recently to sit down at a roundtable discussion with Herzog in Manhattan.


Into the Abyss: Werner Herzog
Director Werner Herzog / courtesy of CDTV

Question: What was it like, to be interviewing Michael, when you knew he would not be able to see the finished product?


Werner Herzog: Well, you have to face what the real world is. It doesn’t prevent me from talking straight to him. He knew beforehand that I wasn’t making a film about trying to prove his innocence, and he was still prepared to talk to me. Within two minutes, I tell him that his bad childhood does not exonerate him. So they like me for being straight with them.


Question: Have any of the other subjects seen the film?


Werner Herzog: No – with one exception, Lisa Stotler, who lost her mother and brother in the murders. I didn’t show it to her; a producer did. I think she loves the film as she wrote me, apparently, a four-page letter, which I haven’t received yet, unfortunately. But I felt that she always felt safe with me, which is very rare in her situation. I think that’s a great compliment for me. I think she trusts in the film as it is. And of course the film is dedicated to her and to another family member of a victim.


But the people in the film do not necessarily have to see the film first. I don’t show a feature to the actors, either – I allow them to live with it as it is. Sometimes people hate it, and you just have to let it be. I have made a decent film, I’m proud of what I did, I can defend my position easily to anyone, so what’s the big deal?


Into the Abyss: Werner Herzog
Convicted murderer Jason Burkett / courtesy of CDTV

Tribeca: There’s so much empathy in the film – all of the characters are victims, in one way or another. How do you go about creating empathy for characters who could be easily vilified?


Werner Herzog: Well, I’m not sure there’s great empathy for the perpetrators. I tell Michael Perry, who is going to die in eight days, that I don’t necessarily have to like him, and he accepts it. But the film does try to look deep into the heart of everyone, into the abyss of the human soul. It has persons in it where you can tell how much I like them. There’s one man I talk to who you can tell I like very much, the man who was stabbed with a screwdriver. He’s a hero because he was under life-threatening attack, in a fight, his friend throws him a knife, it’s right at his feet, and he does not pick it up. He looks at the knife, and he realizes he wants to see his kids at night, and he doesn’t pick it up. I think this is really heroic, because he was stabbed with a twenty-inch screwdriver. He didn’t go to the hospital, either! Thirty minutes later he was roofing a house. It’s totally crazy. I told him he was lucky. You have to find the right tone with people – that’s the key to these things.


Question: So you were only given around fifty minutes with the inmates, right? And I mean, that interview is your movie.


Werner Herzog: Those are the rules, and you have to cope with it as a filmmaker. But some people, I mean the guy stabbed with a screwdriver, I spoke to him for maybe 25 minutes. Someone else I was interviewing just brought him along. I immediately liked him – I felt the calluses in his hand and I asked him, “Are you a working man?” And he said yes. I had the same calluses when I was younger, when I was a kid working the night shift in a steel factory. So I had maybe 25, 30 minutes in my whole life with him.


Or the death-house chaplain – he arrived on the set and even before he said his name, he said, “Quick, quick, I have to be in the death-house in 40 minutes.” So you have to deal with those sorts of things. It doesn’t come naturally, like rain, where you pick up the rainwater and store it for the dry season. I’m a storyteller, I intervene and focus and go after the deer that is fugitive. You have to be quick, you have to understand the heart of men and you have to be open for the unexpected. The unexpected in this film was the urgency of life, which came out of the footage. Hence the subtitle: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life.


Into the Abyss: Werner Herzog
Lt. Damon Hall / courtesy of CDTV

Question: Did you have any reservations when you started the project about not being certain about what focus to take?


Werner Herzog: No, I had a fairly clear focus. Filmmakers are trying to hint at an extreme caution or political correctness, but I am a storyteller, I am after something that is occurring. A court of law has found someone guilty, a monstrous crime has happened. By the way, the perpetrators are never monsters – people always tell me, they are monsters, just shoot them, but nobody thinks about how valuable the proper course of justice is. And of course, they are always human, no matter how monstrous a crime is, you must treat them like human beings. So I think my attitude is defensible and right, and of course I have a certain pride of not being an advocate of capital punishment.


Of course my historical background is different – I am German, with all the barbarism under the Nazi regime, excessive amounts of capital punishment, euthanasia if you were insane, and of course a genocide of six million people. I know not a single person in my group of peers who would be pro-capital punishment. But it’s a different historical background, and I would not like to tell the American people how to deal with their criminal justice. But I leave no doubt that the filmmaker himself is not an advocate of capital punishment.


Into the Abyss: Werner Herzog
Death row inmate Michael Perry / courtesy of CDTV


Tribeca: I think it’s clear what your personal attitude toward the death penalty is, by the end of the film, yet despite your clear stance against it, the film never feels polemical or didactic – it’s very nuanced, very artful, very subtly crafted. That scene where Lisa talks about how the execution made her feel much better was like a counterpoint. Can you tell me a bit about how made this without it coming across as didactic?

Werner Herzog:
Well, you shouldn’t forget that Lisa, who tells about a weight lifted off her heart after the execution – I asked her, “Would you be satisfied if there was an alternative of life in prison without parole?” And she says, “Yes, definitely.”


That was surprising, I didn’t expect it. But then she pauses, and says, “But some people do not deserve to live.” So she’s vacillating.


And when you listen to Fred Allen, [a prison guard who participated in] 125 executions, and has an inexplicable breakdown – that’s a very fascinating voice. There’s material there for consideration, for discussion, for debate. The film itself doesn’t have a prefabricated agenda; it’s not an issue film. I’m not an activist against the death penalty; I’m a filmmaker. And besides, I’m a guest in your country. But this is about how we deal with retribution, with guilt and innocence, the entire understanding of a legal system, good and bad. It’s very complex. And I don’t have an easy answer to it either. But I think it is a question of principle, and you have to deal with it in that fashion.


Into the Abyss opens on Friday, November 11, at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York City, with a national rollout to follow.


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