When has Werner Herzog ever made a film that couldn’t be summarised as a journey into the abyss? Early feature films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small and Aguirre, the Wrath of God seem to revel in the existential savagery of the world while more recent documentaries such as Grizzly Man and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga serve as reminders that the world has little time for the collection of bourgeois conceits that we dare to call a civilisation. The question is never whether Herzog will turn his film into a meditation on the savagery of the world, but which tone he will select as a means of approaching it:
Sometimes (as with Encounters at the End of the World and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) he is a whimsical fantasist who recognises that silliness is the only possible response to a world so cold and drenched with blood.
Sometimes (as with Fitzcarraldo and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) Herzog is a humanist who marvels at our human capacity to overcome the savage injustices of life.
Sometimes (as with Nosferatu the Vampyre and Aguirre) he is filled with bitterness and cynicism by nature’s ability to dissolve humanity’s finest dreams.
If becoming a cinematic auteur requires a director to develop a recognisable sensibility and carry it with them from project to project then Werner Herzog must be considered one of the most prolific and versatile auteurs in cinematic history. Regardless of whether he is producing documentaries or feature-length narrative films, Herzog is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of world cinema but he is also starting to get on.
Back in the early 2000s, a string of moderately successful films provided the veteran director with a level of visibility that had long since been denied him. Thrust into the spotlight and transformed into a celebrity, Herzog made the most of it by adopting the engagingly self-parodic persona of an austere German filmmaker who muses on the savagery of the world with his tongue planted squarely in his cheek. Long-time fans would not have been surprised by this development as Herzog has always had a fondness for deadpan satire and self-mythologising (the documentary My Best Fiend is at least as full of made up crap about Herzog as it is of stuff about Klaus Kinski). The problem with this moment of visibility is that while it evidently made it much easier for Herzog to secure funding on his next project, it also encouraged him to remain Herzog the whimsical fantasist who undercut his meditations on death and destruction with talk of depressed penguins and mutated crocodiles. Given that Herzog was now reaching 70 and more visible than ever, I was concerned that the whimsical Herzog might become a permanent fixture. Would the bitter and humane Herzogs ever return or would it be nothing but dancing souls and iguanas on the coffee table until the end? Clearly, I needn’t have worried as Into the Abyss is a documentary that shows us an entirely new Werner: Herzog the humane socialist.
Into the Abyss begins with a succession of images that could have featured in any one of a dozen documentaries about miscarriages of justice: Herzog shows us the metal gates, the fraying paintwork and the inhuman conditions common in US prisons before sitting us down in front of a smiling death-row inmate who somehow manages to appear contrite whilst also professing his complete innocence.
The man in question is Michael Perry, a young man sentenced to death (and later executed) for breaking into a woman’s house and murdering her in order to steal her car. Herzog then transports us to the scene of the crime where a local cop explains how Perry and his friend Jason Burkett ambushed the woman’s son on his way out of the gated community and used his keys to gain access to the property. This is where things start to get interesting.
Both Perry and Burkett claim to be innocent but they also want us to know that it was the other one who got them into trouble. Their accounts of what actually happened on the night in question make little sense and flat out contradict each other (Perry claims that they decided to sleep in an abandoned car because they couldn’t climb over a fence to get to a motel and Burkett claims to have woken up in the car with the cops shooting at him, Perry and some third person he didn’t know) but Herzog uses a series of flattering questions to make them open up about their state of mind. What emerges is that both young men inhabit a world where it is evidently commonplace to be shot at and, when shot at, it is quite normal to return fire. This is why they ended up in a shoot-out with police and why Perry thought it appropriate to shout ‘Balls to the wall!’ rather than surrender and protest his innocence.
In their haste to blame each other for their own downfall, Perry and Burkett explain that they wound up living together in an abandoned trailer because nobody else would take them in; Slightly older, Burkett emerged from a home shattered by his father’s extended periods of incarceration. The younger Perry seems to have come from a much stabler middle-class environment but his (obvious and undiagnosed) mental health problems forced him first from school, then from work and finally from the family home at which point his sister begged the slightly wiser Burkett to take him in. Forced to the margins of a society without even the ghost of pity, the two young men fell into a lifestyle of drink, drugs and criminality that culminated in theft, murder, violent confrontations with police, and ultimately execution for one and long person terms for the other.
Rather than presenting this colourful backstory as a tragedy or an object lesson in what can happen when people fall through the cracks in society, Herzog treats the boys’ lies, violence, hedonism and religiosity as rational adaptations to a savage and uncaring world.
There’s a wonderful moment where it is revealed that Burkett evaded capture after the gunfight by passing himself off as one of the young men he had allegedly just murdered. What kind of person has the courage and presence of mind to do such a thing? Someone who was raised to live in a savage demimonde just as most of us have been raised to exist in a world of laws and bourgeois conventions.
Having decided to focus upon the cultural context that would produce murderers like Perry and Burkett, Herzog shifts his attention away from the murders and towards the friends, families, and acquaintances that constitute said cultural context. What he finds is that, far from being outliers, Perry and Burkett lived a lifestyle quite common to Texas’ urban poor; One of the interviewees left school unable to read and spent time in prison before cleaning up and getting a poorly-paid manual job but even as a reformed individual, his mannerisms and values are those of someone for whom violence is never completely off the table.
Rather more surprising is an interview with the brother of one of the victims who looks, speaks and thinks almost exactly like Perry, Burkett and their friends. Upon hearing that his brother had been killed, the young man called home only for his grandfather to hang-up on him. Having decided to travel home for the funeral, the young man arrived at the cemetery only to be met by local police who arrested him for jumping bail and shipped him back in shackles. This interview is extraordinary as it drives home the lack of cultural difference between outcast criminals and middle-class victims in gated communities. Much like Perry, the victim’s brother came from a good home but wound up on a path that lead him to a life behind bars. Tellingly, the state did not step in to save either boy but neither did their families… they just put the phone down.
The final stages of the documentary are dominated by extended interviews with members of the older generation. Ostensibly very different people, the daughter of the murdered woman and Jason Burkett’s father soon emerge as having lived very similar lives. Filled with guilt, Burkett’s father talks of how alcohol, drugs and violence had separated him from his family in much the same way as they had separated his father from his. Never raised to fit into a society of laws and bourgeois conventions, Burkett’s father wound up in jail over and over again resulting in his son growing up to be just like him. Similarly guilt-ridden, the daughter of the victim talks about how the loss of her mother and brother was just the latest in a series of cascading murders, suicides and accidents that decimated her family and left the survivors completely traumatised. Her life-story is full of tales about parents not being able to attend weddings because they have died only for her to then point out how that person wasn’t really their parent but someone who had assumed the role of parent following another series of deaths, accidents and unexpected pregnancies.
By juxtaposing these two life stories, Herzog is suggesting that victim and criminal are both locked together in the same system, a network of pipes pumping trauma and misery from one generation to the next. The stories of people like Perry and the victim’s brother suggest that this system is never far away from contemporary lives; one bad decision and your life turns to shit, the more shit your life becomes, the more miserable you become and the worse decisions you make. Once inside the system, it is almost impossible to escape as the trauma and misery of the parents are passed down to their children who raise their own kids to expect nothing more from the world than a kick in the teeth.
Watching Into the Abyss, it is striking how many of these tragedies might have been averted had Americans decided to build themselves a proper welfare state:
Someone should really have noticed Perry’s problems and stepped in to provide support for both him and his family.
Someone should have ensured that Perry always had food, clothes and a place to eat so that he didn’t wind up living in a trailer with an equally troubled friend.
Someone should have realised that Burkett’s father was never going to be a positive influence on his life and provided him with a better environment in which to grow up.
Someone should ensure that deciding to obey the law and learn to read results in a better life than that provided by a menial job that will either drive you to drink and drugs or wear you down to the bone.
Someone should be ensuring that Burkett’s decision to get married and have a family does not result in another kid growing up without a father.
Someone should be ensuring that victim’s daughter does not pass that misery and trauma down to the next generation.
Each of these steps would help to reduce the amount of misery in the world and each of these steps could be transformed into a safety net by a culture willing to accept that social success and failure owe a good deal more to luck than they do to judgement. Where you are born is a question of luck: there is simply no telling whether you will be born to wealthy, happy parents or parents who are miserable, mentally-unstable drunks who wouldn’t be able to make anything of themselves even if their society wasn’t perverse and riddled with corruption.
When social justice advocates talk about ‘privilege’ they are talking about the extent to which an individual got lucky in the lottery of birth. Luck is not just a function of how wealthy your parents happened to be also your sex, your race, your sexuality and a host of other details that society uses to categorise you. Even if you do luck out and wind up being born to white, middle-class parents there is still the privilege of being born to parents with the skill and desire required to prepare you for a life that is happy rather than one in which you are weighted down by misery, trauma and toxic ideas.
Like all of Werner Herzog’s films, Into the Abyss is all about the ruthless savagery of the world but, unlike many of his films, Into the Abyss responds to that savagery with genuine puzzlement: Why do we live in a world that regularly drives people to drink, drugs and violence? Why do we organise ourselves into societies that punish the unlucky for being unlucky and reward the lucky because they just happened the win life’s lottery? Why do we allow entire generations to drown in the trauma and injustices of the past when it is easily within our power to create a system of safety nets that would blunt the world’s teeth and allow everyone to live much happier and productive lives? The answer, I suspect, is that law-making and law-breaking form part of the same emotional system as privileged people displace their fears and anxieties onto an invisible and marginalised population who can be ‘punished’ with little fear of reprisals.
The French sociologist Loic Waquant argues that the American prison system is really nothing more than the latest variation on the institution of slavery. In its heyday, slavery was not just an economic condition but a network of interlocking economic, social and cultural systems (such as the Jim Crow laws) that excluded Africa-American people from the rest of society whilst keeping them under control so as to ensure that the marginalised and outcast never came to form a threat to the ‘real’ American society that benefited from the subjugation. While slavery has long been abolished, its institutions have been replaced by what Wacquant calls a ‘carceral continuum’ in which stygmatised, defamed and ‘surplus’ people are shuffled between the prison, the ghetto and various forms of state-sanctioned benefits servitude without ever allowing the oppressed to gain access to the ‘real’ version of America that we see in the media. While none of the people who feature in Into the Abyss happen to be African-American, it is impossible to deny that they do not form part of an excluded underclass who are shuffled between long-term prison sentences and lives so bleak and precarious that they might as well be a form of punishment in their own right.
Werner Herzog has made a lot of films about the savagery of the world and the fragile skein of human civilisation, but few have moved beyond the abstract to show us the true details of how the savagery of the world replicates itself through our actions. Uncharacteristically light of touch, Into the Abyss is Werner Herzog at his most serious, engaged and humane.