Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011)


Directed by Werner Herzog. Rating: 15. Running time: 120 minutes.

Let the dread of that heavy title take hold of you. At least it will act as mild preparation for what you’ll be taken through by this documentary. I’ve heard it said that Herzog here has given us a modern day In Cold Blood. That may be true – I haven’t read it – but I would think the inspiration is only insofar as both investigate the human effects of a sickening, incomprehensible crime. Dig a little deeper and there’s a level of empathy here the novel cannot possibly attain, simply by virtue of its art form. The power comes from seeing these people on screen. It’s as much about how they look and sound when they speak as what they say, even if Herzog’s quiet questioning ensures the latter is equally frightening but superb. Don’t expect moralising, because there’s little here. This isn’t a political treatise against the death penalty. In fact, despite disclosing his personal conviction that it’s wrong early on, if anything what follows in Herzog’s film is ammunition for his retribution-thirsty opponents. Most of what we hear makes fury at apparently pure evil inevitable, and it’s only one sequence that dampens our spirits and obliges us to revise our emotions. In an interview with one of the convicted murderers’ fathers, we see how his son’s life had the odds stacked against him from day one, and like him there is little we can do to hold back the sympathy, a feeling that ends up extending from the victims to the criminals with confusing but staggering ease. This isn’t soppy. It’s dealing with delicate subject matter – at one point, a man ten days away from being executed on behalf of his fellow citizens – and it is given due seriousness accordingly. If I see anything this frightening or intense this year I’ll be amazed.

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