Werner Herzog has been making films for 43 years, with 18 features and 25 documentaries to his credit, yet the German filmmaker seems to be going through a sort of career rediscovery at the moment thanks to recent films like the brilliant Grizzly Man and off-the-wall Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. His latest documentary, however, has taken the director in a different direction entirely: Into the Abyss is a somber, at times chilling and at other times incredibly poignant look at a triple murder in a small Texas town and its effects on everyone affected by or involved in it, including the two young men -- Michael Perry and Jason Burkett -- sentenced to death (Burkett's sentence was commuted to life in prison) for the cold-blooded killings.
Herzog is less concerned with making a film about the death penalty and more interested in the emotional and spiritual states of the people involved. Like some of his recent films, both fiction and non-fiction, Into the Abyss can sometimes feel rough and unfinished -- yet it's the kind of film that also belongs to its own genre: the Werner Herzog movie. We spoke with Herzog a few days before the film's November 11 opening about this "abyss" and what he discovered there.
Movies.com: You've said elsewhere that you didn’t want to make a statement about the death penalty with this film. But what attracted you to the case?
Werner Herzog: What attracted me was the utter senselessness of the crime. Very disquieting. But let’s talk about capital punishment. I respectfully disagree with the practice because as a German, I have a different historical background and I would be the last one to tell the American people how to conduct their own criminal justice. And, of course, among the states there are different levels of dealing with criminal justice. I'd like to add that it’s very easy and people always think it’s easy to get into the mode of Texas-bashing. I’m not in this business, because I like Texas.
Movies.com: When you sit down with any subject, do you have to consciously put aside any bias of your own that may come up as they speak with you? Can you put all that aside to just be able to engage with them?
Herzog: Yes, you have to find the right tone right away. And, of course, it’s curiosity that drives me when I speak, for example, to Michael Perry, who was executed eight days later. I knew you have to be straightforward. These people have spent ten years on death row, they can tell from a mile away whether you are a phony or not. So I tell him, "I respect you as a human being," and I actually wear a suit, which I hardly ever do, but I do it out of respect. But I also tell him, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you. And they all respect me for that and they all wanted me back for that attitude.
Movies.com: Of course a bias could go the other way too. These are people from Texas, there are certain values or certain ways of belief down there and here comes this European filmmaker wanting to talk with them. And they may be suspicious of you, too.
Herzog: Which doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter, let them be suspicious, although I’m so straightforward that these suspicions disappear quickly. They all know, even the guards and the warden, and they like me for it. Even the guards like me for it. You see, you have 50 minutes, but sometimes they would give me 60 minutes -- the guards with whom I have spoken and who are very much practically all of them, advocates of capital punishment. But I make my position clear in a very decent way: "Yes, I respectfully disagree with your position." And they would give me ten additional minutes. Or, for example, they would allow me to have a microphone taken into this little holding cell for the inmate.
Movies.com: You've said that you don’t go into these interviews -- or discourses as you like to call them -- with prepared questions. Does that make you focus more closely on the subject instead of being distracted out by your own prepared outline?
Herzog: No. I want to understand the heart of men or women, so I go straight for it. And it can take any sort of course. And with Perry, for example, it takes an unexpected course. All of a sudden, he’s back in his adolescence and talks about a canoe trip in the Everglades when he was 13 and is completely oblivious that he’s going to die in eight days. He enjoys all these stories and tells me about the alligators and the monkeys and what he did wrong there.
Movies.com: There were two moments we found very affecting. The first was when Burkett's father, who's also in prison, tells you that the lowest moment of his life was being handcuffed to his son in a prison van...
Herzog: He did not wish to talk about it. He only mentioned being handcuffed with Jason, who is on a life sentence. And I asked him, “You felt his wrists, you felt his hand. How did it feel to be handcuffed on the same bus?” And he says, “I really can’t tell you.” He just can’t tell me. I said, “Please, try anyway.” And he says, “No, I can’t.” And the third time I say, “Please tell us about it.” And all of a sudden he starts talking. You see the kind of insistence, but I’m not – it’s not an ugly insistence. I knew he would eventually speak about it. And it was something of great importance for him and for us. How should we raise our children? He speaks very, very profoundly about small family values.
Movies.com: He does take responsibility for his actions. We never felt that Jason or Michael Perry took responsibility for theirs. They sort of put the finger at each other and Perry even proclaims he’s innocent. Is there something about this younger generation that they don't want to take responsibility for themselves?
Herzog: No, no, I think you see this all the time in prison, in particular on death row because it’s the only sort of last resort to talk yourself into being innocent. It’s some sort of an inner defense in Perry’s case -- talking to himself over ten years about being innocent so that he ultimately believes it and it becomes his second nature. And I understand it, and I respect it, even though I tell everyone, this film is not meant as a platform for you to prove your innocence . . . but I still give him a moment where he can maintain his innocence.
Movies.com: The other segment that really grabs you is with Fred Allen, the retired officer who is the former head of the Death Row squad at the prison, and who basically had enough after supervising 120 executions. What we took away from listening to him is that the more you are around a culture of death, the more you die a little bit yourself every time.
Herzog: I have never heard it put as clearly as that. But a man like Fred Allen is such a strong, grounded man, with such integrity. And you see, he’s the best of the best you can find in America. I love America for this heartland of solidly grounded men with this amount of integrity. You can blindly trust in this man. People are so easily into Texas-bashing, but Texas produces a man like Fred Allen whom you won't find in San Francisco or Boston or on either coast.
Movies.com: On a more general note, do you get the sense that now you’re getting a whole new generation of people looking at your work, especially the newer films?
Herzog: Well it’s always been younger people who have been interested in my films, but of course, I am making films for decades by now. It’s good to see that many, many young people are trying to learn from my way of filmmaking -- not my style, but a way of making films and trying to be self-reliant.