Werner Herzog and I agree on one matter. We are opposed to capital punishment. For me, it has always been a simple matter. The shadow of doubt is virtually inescapable. If one isn’t present when the act is committed, one cannot be certain that evidence, testimony, and even confessions aren’t tainted by mistakes, misperceptions, and lies (intentional or otherwise).
I’ve always been fascinated by the documentary The Thin Blue Line because of this very possibility. It tells the story of a man who was sent to death row for a murder after he “confessed,” multiple eye-witnesses pointed fingers at him, and all evidence, circumstantial and otherwise, cornered him with no way out. It then shows it all to be just such a trampling of the truth.
I also don’t see how killing a person can be a solution. Other than catharsis for the loved ones of the victims, nothing is gained – the victims are no better off – and something is lost – a learning opportunity. The better we understand why and how it happened, the better chance we have of preventing it from happening again. Capital punishment is like throwing paint over ugly mold only to have it seep through, making the house’s future owners ill.
Herzog has always had a way of seeing things in ways that are more complicated. His latest documentary, Into the Abyss takes a look at a four-year-old murder case that has left two men in prison – one on death row (he is executed by film’s end) and one serving a life sentence (he was 19 when the crime was committed and will be 59 when he is up for parole).
Herzog states right off the top that he is opposed to the death penalty. While interviewing the death row inmate, he bluntly says, “I’m talking with you, but it doesn’t mean I like you. I just don’t believe in capital punishment.”
He then stacks the deck against his project by removing all doubt that these particular convicts are guilty. He then shows us – through painful interviews with the daughter/sister of two of the victims and with the brother of the other – the terrible pain and loss this man has caused. Herzog then builds his case.
He opens by interviewing the death row pastor whose job is to comfort convicts by holding their ankles as the lethal injection is applied. The pastor weeps and hopes somehow it is all part of God’s plan. He interviews the man whose job is to execute the final procedure that ends a life. He too weeps and we learn has since quit his job, forfeiting his pension.
His interview of the daughter/sister of the victims concludes with her thoughts about witnessing the execution. She says she is glad she was present because it changed her. Before the experience, she saw the man as a huge beast. She now realizes he was just a boy.
Herzog then suggests his execution to be a broom sweeping a problem under a rug. The world of these convicts is populated by fathers in prison, a woman who thinks nothing of joyriding in a stolen car full of shotguns, and a man who once reacted to being stabbed by watching a bit of puss and blood ooze out before heading to work. These problems won’t be solved with one lethal injection.
Into the Abyss ends as most Herzog films do, with a mystery that suggests a possible future. The inmate with the life sentence has gotten married and his wife is now, somehow, pregnant, even though they are forbidden to do more than hold hands.
(Todd Ford has been a film nut since 1981. He watches far too many movies through Netflix and enjoys a home life with his wife, two daughters, two dogs and five cats.)