LOS ANGELES — For years I’ve labored under the misapprehension that Werner Herzog was simply what we in the film trade would call an auteur — a gifted and compelling filmmaker fascinated by people who test the limits of madness and folly, as he demonstrated in such celebrated films as “Aguirre, Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.” But in recent years, as he has increasingly turned to documentaries, another side of Herzog has emerged: his fascination with what you might call philosophical journalism.
Herzog’s new film, “Into the Abyss,” is a chilling portrait of a triple homicide case in Conroe, Texas, that resulted in the execution of Michael Perry, a young drifter whom Herzog interviewed in prison eight days before he was put to death. But the film also offers a distinctive Herzogian meditation on the human cost of a brutal killing, much as he did in his 2005 film “Grizzly Man,” which explored the life and death of a self-styled expert on bears who mistakenly believed he could live side-by-side in the wild with grizzlies.
“I had been thinking about how we are going to die,” Herzog, 69, told me the other day, eating a bowl of chili at a West Hollywood restaurant near his editing facility. “When you go to death row, you find a group of people who know exactly when they are going to die. You are given a lethal injection at 6:03 a.m. and you will be pronounced dead less than 10 minutes later. I was drawn to Michael Perry because the crime he committed was so utterly senseless and the story of the people around him was like a tapestry that touched on the deepest, darkest recesses of what lies inside us all.”
It is hardly a surprise that the film’s original poster featured a blurb describing “Into the Abyss” as the cinematic equivalent of Truman Capote’s 1965 book, “In Cold Blood,” a groundbreaking work in new journalism that featured Capote’s reconstruction of a bloody murder of a family in small-town Kansas. Herzog performs a similar cinematic autopsy of the murders committed by Perry and Jason Burkett, who was given a life sentence instead of death, in part because of testimony from his father, a career criminal who was transported from his own prison cell to the courtroom to testify on his son’s behalf.
Burkett’s father ends up being a major figure in “Abyss,” as does a death-row team captain who straps inmates into a gurney before they are executed and a woman who married the younger Burkett after he went to prison and has become pregnant with his child through some form of artificial insemination.
Because he’s such a sharp-eyed but cerebral sleuth, Herzog is the best kind of documentarian, one with the inquisitive mind of a journalist but the sensitive soul of an artist. A host of novelists have doubled as journalists over the years and like the best of them — think Norman Mailer, Joan Didion or David Foster Wallace — Herzog is fascinated with the ingredients of the human psyche that have always kept writers spellbound, be it hubris and ambition or vulnerability and human frailty. Herzog wants to hear people tell their stories in telling detail. Facts, as he once said, are for accountants.
Wherever Herzog goes, he discovers strange, oddly compelling characters. He pursues their stories the way a great journalist would — by posing the questions hardly anyone else would ask, all given an extra portentousness by Herzog’s thick, Bavarian accent.
In “Encounters at the End of the World,” his documentary about scientists living in Antarctica, Herzog speaks with a taciturn marine ecologist who spends most of his time in the company of penguins. Dispensing with any cuddly creature banter, Herzog asks: “Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins?” In his last film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a study of 32,000-year-old cave drawings in France, Herzog interviews a mild-mannered cave specialist who reveals that when he was young, he performed in a circus. Herzog immediately asks: “What were you, if I may ask — a lion tamer?”
In “Abyss,” Herzog asks far more unsettling questions, often with a more philosophical bent. Listening to a prison chaplain describe his death-row duties, including holding the ankles of inmates as they are given a lethal injection, Herzog cuts to the chase: “Why does God allow capital punishment?” The chaplain says he has no answer, but jarred by Herzog’s blunt query, he launches into an oddly contemplative recollection of an encounter he had with a pair of squirrels on a golf course. His eyes glazed with tears, he grapples with the idea that the squirrels are allowed to go on with their lives while the people whose ankles he holds are sent to their deaths.
“Nobody else would’ve asked that question,” he said. “But somehow, sensing the heart of the man, I knew how to open him up. When people ask me why I do such things, I say that it is because I’m a filmmaker. It’s my way of finding the big wrench to open up the hood.”
To me, that is what makes Herzog a journalist as well. He vehemently disagrees. “I’m more like an explorer, like the first men who crossed the arid Sahara in the 19th century. When I do an interview, I have no prepared questions. I engage in discourse, because I want to know what is in people’s minds.”
When I spoke with Herzog, I asked him for his own thoughts on capital punishment. “I am not a religious man, but I was intensely religious in my adolescence,” he explained. “I probably know the Bible better than my peers. And I’m pretty certain that Jesus would not have been an advocate of capital punishment.”
Being a journalist myself, I wanted to better understand Herzog’s own public refusal to embrace capital punishment. He has repeatedly said that, as much as he loves living in America, he will not become a U.S. citizen as long as the country puts people to death.
“It is not a statement just about America,” he reminds me. “I cannot become a Chinese, Japanese, Russian or Egyptian citizen either, since they practice capital punishment too. I am from Germany, a country, in the time of the Nazis, that conducted an enormous campaign of capital punishment against its own citizens, and on top of that, carried out genocide against 6 million Jews. So from my standpoint, no state should be allowed to kill its citizens.”
Whatever Herzog’s own views about the death penalty, the film is not an assault of facts and figures marshaling a case against capital punishment. To hear him say it, the film’s intent isn’t to change people’s minds. He is more than content to simply present and explore the paradoxes of a complex issue, and get others to think about them as well.
“After all,” he said, “would you want me, as a German, to try to teach Americans what to do?”