The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Werner Herzog took me to a guided tour into the abyss

with 23 comments

Into the Abyss

I’ve turned into a documentary junkie. You might have noticed.

My top list of movies this year will be generously sprinkled with documentaries and I wouldn’t be surprised if there will be a couple of them in the top ten.

It’s a combination of things about them that attracts me:

  • The insight that you know that this thing actually happened and that the people in it exist for real. They’re not the fruit of someone’s imagination, not a mask that you can take off once the shooting is over. It’s a part of our reality, as dark, as beautiful and as weird as it gets.
  • The freshness. In the world of documentaries there are no sequels, remakes or reboots. Every documentary I’ve seen has had its own unique voice with a new, different approach to its chosen topic.
  • The emotional response. Yes, you read me right: emotional. While you could imagine a fact based film should be more about reason than about emotion, it’s actually the opposite. All the documentaries I’ve seen this year have made me laugh, cry, cringe or hiss angrily in a way that very few feature films can.

Into the Abyss is all of this and the name of the film is very appropriate considering the nature of the places that Werner Herzog brings us to.

Its epicenter is a prisoner waiting to be executed for the cruel, meaningless murderers he and another man committed ten years ago in order to get hold of a car they wanted.

Herzog interviews this convict shortly before he’s about to die from an injection. He also meets a number of other people concerned with this case in different ways – a police officer, relatives of the victims, his companion who “only” was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail, the companion’s father and girlfriend and an ex-employee who assisted in 100 executions until he from one day to another suddenly realized that he had had enough and actually was against the death penalty.

At an early stage in the film Herzog discloses that he is an opponent of the death penalty. Since I share this view, I might be biased, but I think that one of the strengths about the film is that Herzog doesn’t let his opinion dominate the film.

Curious attitude
This is not a one-sided statement in a political debate; he’s not arguing for the legislation to be changed and he’s by no means sugarcoating or coming up with excuses for the deeds. The victims get as much space as the killers – or more. Regardless of who they are, everyone is approached with the same calm and curious attitude.

Is it possible to close the abyss? Could you stop evil things from happening again, can you prevent someone from turning evil?

Herzog never attempts to come up with an answer. His mission is of a different kind – the one of an observer. He takes us to places where we usually never go, showing sides of the human condition that are unknown to most of us.

I recommend you to see this film if you get the chance, regardless if you’re a documentary junkie or not. While being immensely sad and dark, it stayed with me for days afterwards. It made me grateful about having the life I have, on the more shallow waters, far, far from the abyss.

“How are you going to live your dash?” is one of the questions that is asked, referring to the dash that is on the tombstone between the day you’re born and the day you die.

I don’t know the answer, but I can’t get it out of my head.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, US 2011) My rating: 4,5/5

Written by Jessica

December 5, 2012 at 1:00 am

Posted in Into the Abyss

23 Responses

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  1. It certainly sounds like an exceptionally powerful film.

    Once when browsing I stumbled across an online record of the last words before execution of a series of American prisoners – I forget which state. Anyway, I read through several hundred of them, stretching across several years. It was really a quite strange experience.

    stnylan

    December 5, 2012 at 1:24 am

    • They actually show some of those statements in the film. You also get some other details, about what they eat and such. It’s done in a very quiet, non-sensationalist way.

      Jessica

      December 5, 2012 at 8:04 am

  2. Herzog really has an incomparable knack for probing and provoking thought. The questions he asks (and he always seems to ask just the right ones), always generate fascinating responses. I liked that he stayed on the peripheral here and let the people and facts speak for themselves.

    You should check out the TV episodes he made following other death row cases, called: “On Death Row”. It’s probably still on YouTube. They are all just as compelling as the one in this film.

    Bonjour Tristesse

    December 5, 2012 at 1:47 am

    • Yes, I think it’s because he’s so good at listening. He doesn’t just tick off a list of questions, he grabs oportunities when they come. I should check out those additional episodes.

      Jessica

      December 5, 2012 at 8:09 am

  3. I have been interested in this film for a while, and I appreciate the fact that the director isn’t simply pressing a political cause or trying to offer answers. We need more documentaries like this, that take viewers more deeply into an issue and give us room to think and ponder the issues for ourselves.

    quirkybookandfilmbuff

    December 5, 2012 at 6:06 am

    • I agree. Herzog doesn’t take all the space for himself. There’s room for your own reflections.

      Jessica

      December 5, 2012 at 8:18 am

  4. Amazing post, Jess! Will definitely add this one to my list 🙂

    fernandorafael

    December 5, 2012 at 6:58 am

    • Thanks Fernando! You can never get a too long list. 😉

      Jessica

      December 5, 2012 at 8:19 am

  5. Nice to hear you’ve become a documentary addict! 😉 like you know I love them and anything by Herzog is worth checking out. This one was a very good one. He has also made a TV series about people in jail which is broadcast by the discovery channel. Have not watched those yet but if it is anything like this I know I should be watching it.

    Nostra

    December 5, 2012 at 10:31 am

    • Yes, someone else mentioned those and said there were on Youtube. It sounds worth checking out. The only other doc by Herzog I’ve seen is the one about Klaus Kinski, which also was excellent.

      Jessica

      December 5, 2012 at 9:38 pm

      • Try to watch more of his work Jessica. I liked Cave of Dreams, Encounters at the End of the World, Grizzly Man, Little Dieter wants to Fly. Also try to watch the documentary which was made about him filming Fitzcarraldo, it’s also excellent.

        Nostra

        December 6, 2012 at 9:27 am

  6. Nice post, maybe I should try docu-Herzog? At least he can’t be worse than fiction-Herzog 😉

    You read Fokus, don’t you? Considering your first bullet point, what are your thoughts on Ola Larsmos article where he claims that we seek “the truth” because we wish not to acknowledge that there are many, individual truths?

    Sofia

    December 5, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    • Any movies in particular that you didn’t like?

      carrandas

      December 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    • You don’t like fiction-Herzog? But…but… Fitzcarraldo! Klaus Kinski!

      My daughter reads Fokus and it arrives at our home since she’s still registred as living here. Sometimes I have a sneak view into it. I haven’t read that article though. If she hasn’t snatched that issue already I should check it out.

      Jessica

      December 5, 2012 at 9:39 pm

      • Sorry, but I didn’t “get” Fitzcarraldo. I have a sneaking suspicion that Herzog’s way of telling a story does not click with me. In some way, they always seem pointless to me, in that I can’t feel the drive in the story. To put it quite crudely, I get bored. So far, I have tried Kaspar Hauser, Fitzcarraldo and Rescue Dawn and I’m not sure that I’m inclined to give fiction-Herzog any more chances.

        Sofia

        December 6, 2012 at 6:09 am

  7. It is a very good documentary indeed. I saw it because it had a 4 star rating by nr. 1 Herzog fan, Ebert (well, that and I like most of Herzog’s other work). And he was right about it. It’s posing interesting questions. Why was one boy sentenced to death and the other not?

    Herzog made some very good documentaries. Grizzly Man is also incredible, go see it if you haven’t already. I also enjoyed his Encounters at the End of the World.

    carrandas

    December 5, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    • I haven’t seen either of thos docs you mention. I definitely should check them out.

      Jessica

      December 5, 2012 at 9:40 pm

  8. I keep meaning to watch this. I hear so many good things. Great review.

    filmhipster

    December 6, 2012 at 2:28 am

  9. Herzog is one of my favorite directors. i haven´t seen all of his movies but I take em bit by bit. Fiction or docu doesn´t matter he is almost always great. Have you seen Grizzly man? Great film.

    filmitch

    December 6, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    • Nope, I haven’t seen it. I definitely would love to though.

      Jessica

      December 6, 2012 at 11:39 pm

  10. […] Jessica writes about Werner Herzog and a guided abyss. […]

  11. […] Into the Abyss From my review: ”Immensely sad and dark, it stayed with me for days afterwards. It made me grateful about having the life I have, on the more shallow waters, far, far from the abyss.” […]


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