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Into The Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

Directed by Werner Herzog

USA, 2011

Cornerhouse, 31 March 2012

Into the Abyss

Aside from a few haunting images and urgent contributions from interviewees, this is a mediocre film.

The German director has made a true-crime documentary, reporting on crime and punishment as carried out in middle America: three people murdered, two convicted, one executed.  A plot in Potters Field, a numbered wooden cross marking the spot, awaits the young man on the gurney.  We are shown a row of such crosses; it’s one of the (few) images that stay with you.

Several times during the interviews, Herzog makes clear his reservations about capital punishment and that damages the film.  It becomes a polemic rather than a report.  Not only is he intrusive (and Herzog has now unfortunately become a brand, with Teutonic kookiness his USP) but more seriously he’s chosen to sculpture or contrive a narrative around death and life (execution and pregnancy) which glosses over the human suffering caused by the crime.  This is, moreover, a crime where neither convict has really come clean, confessed to their full involvement.  They, the perpetrators, actually seem to regard themselves as the victims, one prisoner speaking of the state’s intent to ‘murder’ him.  Herzog goes easy on them, lets these loose remarks slide, perhaps because it suits his polemic purpose.  One would have hoped for a bit more rigour, but Herzog proves himself a sloppy journalist.

There’s an awful lot of bad faith and falseness to the film and the director contributes his fair share.  Sad to say, it’s a deeply disappointing film.