Film Review: Into the Abyss / Death Row
Note: this is a review of Werner Herzog’s cinematic release ‘Into the Abyss’ (on selected release and available online via Curzon Cinema’s website) and the television series ‘Death Row’ (which is currently being shown at 10pm Thursdays Channel 4 and 4oD)
In approaching the subject of the death penalty, Werner’s Herzog’s ‘Into the Abyss’ begins with a Christian Minister recounting a story of a time he was close to running over a squirrel with his golf caddy to which he breaks into tears; a personal reminder that all life is precious be it the life of a frolicking squirrel or the life of a murderer. The emotive impact that nature has over man, is something Herzog has done to effect in many of his films including ‘Grizzly Man’ and ‘Aguirre: The Wrath of God’; films that also represent Herzog’s lifelong directorial enthusiasm in painting pictures of often obsessive, nihilistic characters that exist in social and geographical peripheries. It comes to little surprise ‘Into the Abyss’/‘Death Row’ (a television series of intimate ‘portraits’ with death row prisoner) Herzog explores such themes and ones of a more humane nature, that are well needed to counterpoint the bleak nature of the subject material.
‘Into the Abyss‘ builds it’s narrative from the stories of the numerous parties involved in the tragedy of murder. A large proportion is filmed from the perspective of Werner Herzog who sits in front of a glass panel separating himself and us the viewer from his subjects most significantly Michael Perry on Death Row and his co-defendant Jason Burkett who were prosecuted for three murders. The damage of the death penalty is shown on those for whom it’s a part of life, a profession is shown in a troubling interview with a retired execution room administrator who oversaw approximately 120 executions.
The interviews are dominated by subjects of murder and execution, but there are also accounts of suicides, accidental and premature deaths. Added to themes of inescapable poverty, drug abuse, sexual abuse, absent fathers create a nihilistic existence, the participants of Into the Abyss’/‘Death Row’ are shown to exist in a bleak relentless environment.
At times ‘Into the Abyss’ struggles to avoids padding out the narrative, in particular the testimonies of Jared Talbort and Mrs Burkett; the latter of which a noble attempt to counter the bleak tone but results in a somewhat banal one instead. ‘Death Row‘ avoids such faults as the forty (or so) minute long episodes of ‘portraits’ of prisoners seems a more effective medium to explore the subject.
Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography for‘Into the Abyss’ is largely functional but due to fewer constraints on narrative development in ‘Death Row’ there is greater opportunity for visual explorations and embellishment. In a episode of ‘Death Row‘ few words are needed for Herzog to effectively create sympathies for prisoner Hank Skinner from a visual representation of his bleak featureless town by captured from a car window.
Mark De Gli Antoni original score is beautiful; the plucked and bowed violin strings create a picture of a Mid Western ghost gold rush town, where disintegrating buildings remain but inhabitants are long gone and it’s stories blow like dust on the wind.
From the very outset (Herzog’s mission statement for ‘Death Row’) the argument against the death penalty is presented but there is a clear absence for it’s favourable perspective; which even if the voice against is clear, support for the death penalty is very strong. The absence of a counter argument is possibly unimportant as ‘Into the Abyss’/‘Death Row’ is Herzog’s personal argument against the death penalty. Despite the faults of ‘Into the Abyss’ it’s difficult to not be taken by Herzog’s compassionate argument against the death penalty, and at the end credits as a citizen of the United Kingdom I was appreciative and proud to be a citizen of a nation that had ended the death penalty 50 years ago.
Film review by Shubs Golder