A Gaze into the Abyss

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PHOTO © AARON LYNETT/POSTMEDIA NEWS/ZUMAPRESS.COM
Werner Herzog is known for exploring the human predicament in his films.

In October 2001, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry shot and killed Sandra Stotler in her home in Conroe, a small city about 40 miles north of Houston. After dumping her body in a nearby lake, the two returned to Stotler’s neighborhood, where they murdered her son Adam and his friend Jeremy Richardson after coaxing them into nearby woods. Burkett and Perry were teenagers at the time. Their motive was acquiring Sandra Stotler’s red Chevy Camaro, which they later bragged they’d won in a lottery and took girls joyriding in.

Burkett and Perry were apprehended by police following a shootout in a motel parking lot a week after the murders. Burkett was given a life sentence; Perry, who fired the shotgun that killed the Stotlers and Richardson, was sentenced to death. Nearly a decade later, filmmaker Werner Herzog came to Texas to interview the two men —in Perry’s case, just days before his execution in the summer of 2010—for the documentary Into the Abyss.

The wheat fields of Holcomb, Kansas, where murders similar to those later committed in Conroe inspired Truman Capote’s already powerful voice in In Cold Blood. Similarly, Herzog didn’t find his voice in East Texas—the director’s voice arrived in Texas as fully formed and recognizable as one’s own signature. Instead he found confirmation of his long-held belief that civilization’s grasp is tenuous at best, and that being human means being attracted to decency and brutality simultaneously, and against one’s will. Into the Abyss could be the title of nearly every movie Herzog has made in his 50-year career, from Fitzcarraldo to Grizzly Man.

Unlike most directors, who might look at the Conroe murders and ask themselves “why”—Why would the perpetrators do something so incomprehensible? Why does the state put some people to death but let others live?—Herzog is interested only in the what. He’s convinced that inside even the smallest human action there lies some clue to the whole of the human predicament. It’s a moral and aesthetic philosophy based on the paradox that everything is full of meaning and meaningless at the same time.

It’s no surprise then that some of the most moving and disturbing scenes in Into the Abyss (now available on DVD) are also the driest: procedural descriptions of the investigation, or minute-by-minute accountings of the process by which a man is lawfully executed. As always, Herzog shows violence to be at once the most unsettling thing in the world and the most common. When he replays police footage of the crime scene, the banality of the setting is what makes it so disturbing. If Sandra Stotler can be shot to death in her own home while unbaked cookie dough goes stale on a counter top and a television plays in the living room—while life goes on around her—then what safety is there in the world?

This being a Werner Herzog movie, there is no safety; there’s no morality either. There’s just life. There are the lives of those who snuff out other lives, and the lives that get snuffed out. There are the joyless lives of the victims’ family members, going on and on. There are the lives of the detectives and death chamber directors for whom life and death are no longer moral issues—just names and dates to be recorded. And, of course, there’s the life of the artist, curious and intrusive and looking for meaning he knows isn’t there.

Herzog titles his movie’s epilogue “The Urgency of Life” to drive home just how powerful this amoral, indifferent, will to live is. The baby growing inside Jason Burkett’s new wife will be born even as his father wastes away in a cell; the death house warden at the Huntsville prison who has overseen the killings of 120 men will find his own life again now that he’s retired and has taken his hands off the machinery of death. Sandra and Adam Stotler and Jeremy Richardson are dead, of course, as is Michael Perry.

Because outside the facts of the case, outside the details of the crime, outside the what of that mindless East Texas rampage, there’s nothing: just the ticking of the clock of a legal system that kills.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.