To whom it may concern

Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust

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.

Chaos.

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.

14 thoughts on “Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust

  1. I love and hate docos that leaving me with that rattled feeling you describe. It’s meaningful to be moved that profoundly but sometimes it’s so difficult thinking of the questions they bring up. Wow, the trailer is spooky even.

    I think the last documentary that I watched that gave me that sort of feeling was The Tillman Story about a US solider who was killed by friendly fire and then his death subject to a cover up. There are just some things in life you kind of don’t want to have to imagine.

    Very intriguing post!

    1. I remember following that story as it broke and would really like to see that film. I totally get what you mean about it being a double edged sword – these are issues that we should dialogue about, but sometimes it seems just to dredge up more questions than answers…

  2. I just watched this over this past weekend. God, I love Herzog’s documentaries. He has something so different to them. I love that he has his opinion of the subject but never lets it overwhelm the picture. I also love how he just lets the camera linger on the person after they are done talking. It just adds so much. This is a strange subject and one I’m not sure I can have a valid opinion on but it was so interesting

  3. Again a beautifully written text with insight.Only death gives meaning to life…May be Jesus of Nazareth’s last words, “why have you forsaken me” epitomizes the value of life. Life, without any hope in an illusory eternity that distracts us from living.

  4. Judging from the headline that popped up in my email, I expected this to be a lighthearted post about black lung, possibly peppered with some Decemberists lyrics or quotes from Downton Abbey. Instead; I find ruminations on justice and mortality and the arbitrary nature of the human condition. It was a bit of a shock to say the least.

    I think I’ll have to check this film out; I really wanted to see his doc on cave paintings last year but never got the chance.

    1. Definitely check it out. And then let me know what you think.

      Sorry for the red herring. I didn’t want to title it anything too bleak because the subject matter was pretty tense already. My ode to the black lung is coming soon…

  5. Riveting post. Now I MUST see this film. I always enjoy a movie that makes me think, no matter how uneasy it makes me feel at the end. I couldn’t agree more with your question/answer at the end of your post. It isn’t up to us to decide who lives and who dies, whether it be at the hands of the state or an individual.

    And your post is quiet timely as I’m stuck in bed with the flu…booo… :(

    1. Oh no! Feel better Ms. Belinda – drink lots of Chai, or lemon tea :)

      Definitely check out this film. It’s really an amazing piece of work – Herzog at his best for sure. Would love to hear your thoughts!

  6. Great post, I’m very intrigued to watch this doco!

    It reminds me of Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood. It has been adapted into 3 films, the one titled Capote (2005) starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and Catherine Keener as Harper Lee is probably the best.

    Will have to watch Into The Abyss to see if my instincts are correct! : )

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