Last night I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss.
It is an amazing film, though disturbing. In fact, I went to bed feeling very strange.
Mr. Herzog’s films often leave me feeling profoundly unsettled – their subject matter, his style of direction, his narration, his score – all of these elements combine to create a film that rattles something very deep inside of me.
It’s like something has been jarred loose, and I cannot put it back in place.
And I’m nervous – because I’m not even sure from whence this piece of me came.
If you have ever seen any of his films, you will be familiar with one of his trademark styles – how he purposefully lets his shots linger, long past the point of comfort.
Instead of cutting away, the camera will remain focused on the person, or the scene, and as a viewer, it makes me squirm; I find myself willing for him to move on.
Indeed, the longer he stays with the shot, a feeling of perverse voyeurism begins, and takes root inside of me.
I feel as though I have no right to see these moments, these snapshots of humanity – raw, stripped, debased, terrifying, beautiful, maddening, heart breaking – scenes that in any other film might end up on the cutting room floor.
But it is also these moments that – no matter what my stage of discomfort – envelope me is a perverse majesty, luring me into the film.
In fact, they transform me – from disconnected bystander, to active participant.
No longer a passive observer, disconnected from the film, its subject, and its characters, I am forced to reconcile how my judgments, my reactions, my questions fit into the movie’s narrative.
Where do I fit in this conversation?
Into the Abyss focuses on two inmates: one is on death-row awaiting execution in a Texas penitentiary; the other is serving a life sentence. One crime; two sentences.
The film explores, in a very subtle and yet incredibly powerful way, the question why people, and the state, kill.
Why do people die? Why do people live?
Who decides who dies and who lives? And why?
The film is structured is such a way that we absorb not just the heinous, senseless crime that these two men have committed (for which neither shows any remorse, nor do either of them admit guilt) but also the broader (and yet incredibly insular) world that contributed to the crimes.
A so-called “civilized” society that is unable to tame a chaotic nature driven to seed – one that is reflected in an endless cycle of broken homes, abuse, unemployment, casual street violence – a warped world where two eighteen year old boys would kill three people for a red camero.
Where two young men are convicted of the same crime, but only one is sentenced to death.
Both have killed, but only one is killed.
Although the question is never expressly asked in the film – indeed Herzog never reveals his overall thesis statement – you cannot stop asking yourself, why?
Again and again this question: why do some live, and others die?
Indeed, I find this query arresting.
And it keeps coming back, over, and over again – presented in different incarnations, addressed to different situations, but always the same: no matter what the reasoning behind it – blind rage, capital punishment, war, pre-meditation, revenge - how do you kill someone?
Why do you kill someone?
This system, the institutions we have devised to support life – call it the state, call it society, call it government, call it the law, call it civilization – these are not infallible, impartial machines.
They, like human beings, are susceptible to bias.
Sometimes they are as equally chaotic as the world they are meant to discipline and punish.
They are flawed.
And like human beings, they kill.
And by the end of the film, after conversations with lawmen, a priest, the convicted killers, bereaved family members, and a former prison guard, we can look at this unthinkable crime – these three murders, and their inherent meaningless – and at the bottom of it all, we do not see redemption.
We do not see hope or forgiveness, renewal or compassion, regret or acceptance.
We see only time and emptiness.
There is life.
And there is death.
Two powerful forces – forces that exist with or without us.
Who lives and who dies?
This is something we must never decide.