Into the Abyss (2011)

Into the Abyss theatrical

He looked just like a little boy lying on the gurney. Werner Herzog goes to Conroe, Texas to examine the case of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both convicted of a triple murder in 2001. He interviews the men, both of whom blame the other and proclaim their innocence from behind bars. Perry is 14 days from execution and appears to have made his peace with God. Burkett can look forward to eventually getting out. Hence the film’s subtitle:  A Tale of Life, A Tale of Death.  Burkett has married a prison groupie who somehow became inseminated despite there being no situation in which they could have had intercourse.  Herzog is walked around the crime scene by an investigating police officer and part of the film contains the police video of the aftermath. Widowed nurse Sandra Stolter was shot in her house in an expensive gated community as she baked cookies at Halloween. She was dumped in a lake.  Her 17-year old son (actually her older daughter’s illegitimate son, therefore her grandson) was hunted down and killed along with his friend. All of this was because Perry and Burkett wanted the woman’s red Camaro. They were chased for three days until they were caught. The car is in a pound, having been moved from its previous location where a tree grew through the floor. Herzog remains behind the camera and there is minimal voiceover but his solemn, methodical approach and his choice of interviewees buttresses his view that the death penalty is wrong although the film is so carefully constructed there is no real attempt to figure out what happened and who did what. The film is divided into a prologue and six sections. It begins with the prison chaplain whose job it is to comfort men about to be put to death. We see the cemetery where they are buried in their hundreds without their names, just their prison numbers. The former captain of death row Fred Allen finally gave up his job when he had to put a woman to death (Karla Faye Tucker in 1998) and sacrificed his pension:  he talks about living ‘in the dash’ ie the time between life and death as signified on the grave markers. Burkett’s father is himself serving 40 years and is interviewed behind bars, his fifth time inside. He blames his almost permanent absence from home for his son’s actions:  his testimony at sentencing saved Jason from lethal injection. Stolter’s daughter Lisa attended the execution and lets us know that Perry ‘forgave me.’ She laughs through her tears. On the one hand this is a careful indictment of a system of criminal justice which results in capital punishment. On the other, it’s a terrifying examination of broken families and dysfunction and the effects of drink and drugs. The big question here is why anyone kills in the first place – the individual or the State. But it’s still a small story. It’s an utterly tragic account of many lives destroyed in a small Texas town – all because two nasty teenagers coveted a car.

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Stroszek (1977)

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Werner Herzog makes extraordinary films, doesn’t he? And here’s a road movie to beat the band. Bruno (Bruno S., Kaspar Hauser) has just been released from prison following a drunken episode. His problems all relate to having been brought up in Nazi-run institutions. His dwarf neighbour Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) has kept his myna bird and flat, complete with piano. Music has saved his life but he can’t earn a living from singing in the streets. He falls for prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes, more familiar from her work with Fassbinder) but she needs to escape local thugs and she works extra to get them all the money to leave Berlin and go to the United States, where Scheitz’s nephew runs a garage in rural Wisconsin. Things start badly when Stroszek’s myna bird is confiscated on arrival.  It’s tough to earn a living and the bank closes in on Eva and Stroszek’s home so she has to whore herself again and they split up. Stroszek compares the American way of life to that which he experienced  under the Nazis – spiritual abuse. When his home is publicly auctioned he takes a truck and ultimately abandons it in Fort Tomahawk, running it in ever-decreasing circles, as he looks at a display of performing chickens and armed police arrive… This tragicomic look at the life of three apparent eccentrics is actually a startling dissection of what passes for human existence, in all its pathetic banality,underscored by the muzakal interpretation of By the Time I Get to Phoenix (James Last, vielleicht?!) It’s a portrait of the US that doesn’t enhance one’s views of prospects outside the metropolis and Herzog captures the utter degradation of poverty in a land without pity.

Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)

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Fini Straubinger is a 55-year old Bavarian woman who became blind and 95% deaf aged 15, years after a childhood prank went wrong. Her mother confined her to bed for 30 years, isolating her from all activity. Now she spends her time travelling in the region, becoming friends with people similarly afflicted. Much of the film is about Fini’s interactions, assisted by her friend who uses a manual alphabet of taps and strokes for communication. They go on an aeroplane, pet animals at a zoo. Fini’s perception of her situation is in the realm of the poetic. She describes the colours she sees and the range of sounds, from a constant trickling of sand to bells ringing, as the everyday base from which her remaining senses proceed. People are never totally deaf or blind, she explains.The most distressing scenes are with children born deafblind who have horrible physical problems and whose parents gave up on them. Or the man who suddenly became blind aged 35 and went to live in a stable with cows because his family wouldn’t help. Werner Herzog’s work is extraordinary because it elicits our sympathy without once stooping to pity or sentiment. Bach and Vivaldi are judiciously utilised to fill the parts the poetry doesn’t reach.

Heart of Glass (1976)

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Werner Herzog has made some incredible films and this exercise in a kind of allegorical mysticism earned its reputation not merely on its merits but because he had the cast hypnotised. We are in eighteenth century Bavaria. The village glassmaker has died and the formula has been lost;  the local baron is literally losing his mind because he has come to believe that the ruby glass has magical properties. Everyone else seems to fall into a sympathetic trance-like state. The local seer predicts the destruction of the factory by fire. Some of Herzog’s finest moments are within the first few minutes, with Popol Vuh’s music accompanying beautiful Super 8 landscape imagery; while the last sequence proves that there is a connection between Star Wars and this most interesting of filmmakers – I’m referring of course to Skellig Michael, off Ireland’s west coast, the furthest point in Europe before you get to the US. Herzog adapted Herbert Achternbusch’s story and Joerg Schmidt-Reitwein’s cinematography is splendid. Like most everything, better seen than written about.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

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Werner Herzog has made films so extraordinary as to practically represent a genre unto themselves and this may be his greatest. The (more or less true) story of a man found in Germany in 1828 who has never known anyone properly and been kept in a cellar is a universal tale of profound wisdom (credited to the director but Jakob Wassermann also contributed to the screenplay). Herzog had spotted Bruno S in a documentary and would work with him again in Stroszek. He was mentally disabled and had been the subject of Nazi experiments. He bought himself a piano with the proceeds of his work and died in 2010. This is simply, truly told. The music is aptly chosen (Pachelbel), the animals with which Kaspar communes are part of the fabric of nature which seeps through the storytelling. The photography involved the use of Super 8, telephoto lenses and the re-photographing of some sequences on 35mm, with the speeds altered (cinematography is by Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein).  It is a splendid dream of a life.