The second part of the rather clumsily coloned title of Herzog’s latest documentary, A Tale of Life, a Tale of Death, builds a vast and vague picture of what the film holds in store. But vast and vague it is. Taking the specific case of a chilling crime and its aftermath, Herzog manages to capture humans in their most vulnerable and powerful moments. He chooses to look deep into the characters on the periphery of the crime rather than linger on superfluous details, rarely breaking from the verbal to-camera accounts which function as a form of penance.
Into the Abyss is divided into five parts, a device used to theme the flow from crime to punishment. Following on from the prologue (which involves the Herzogian prompt ‘describe your encounter with a squirrel’) the crime is laid out in a languorous fashion. The messy and seemingly spontaneous triple homicide of two members of the Stotler family and a friend leads us to the ‘protagonists’ of the film – death row dwelling Michael Perry and accomplice Jason Burkett, serving a life sentence. The two men are alarmingly articulate, more so in some instances than the incidental characters, accepting gracefully their situation. Frustratingly, though, Herzog chooses not to penetrate their professed innocence, in light of the hard evidence against them.
The film is unselective in who it awards the most compassion, switching from Perry and Burkett’s plight to the astounding grief and misfortune of the victims. Herzog must have thought he’d struck gold though when he scraped the surface of the individuals involved. The unmitigating tragedy which has not just touched but suffocated the lives of Lisa Stotler Balloun and Charles Richardson (relatives of the victims) is unbearably moving, letting their stories be slowly drawn out by a sensitive Herzog. Just when you think all of the bombshells have been dropped, Herzog pulls Burkett’s wife out of the bag, an attractive, mild and slightly crackers woman who tops off the film’s incongruity.
With the look of a Lise Sarfati monograph, Into the Abyss is filmed in a simple photogenic style. The film proves Herzog still has a knack for capturing the best and worst in human thought and behaviour. It could have been more confrontational in both the interview style and political motive, but it is still a documentary which is as bizarre and comic as it is affecting, a blend which Herzog still has the audacity to mix.