Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Werner Herzog: Cycles of Justice (Into the Abyss)

Into the Abyss, IFC Films, 2011.

From a disarmingly ambling opening to its calm beholding of loss and torment, German New Wave master Werner Herzog's new documentary, Into the Abyss, stoically regards many facets of our culture and social constructs. As in all his works, the abyss is both the emptiness within ourselves and its manifestation in nature and the unseen. A sad cast of characters live before the lens through their piercing words, no matter what side of the story we find them on.

The American death penalty remains a hot-button issue, dividing citizens as much, if not more, than other volatile subjects. Our punishment is a bureaucracy so built up, a machine so well oiled and working, that it eats up many without the education or money to defend themselves. Despite this, Herzog films his story objectively, almost passively. He plays police videos, films the haunted murder sites, interviews fringe characters of the law. But as we spend time with the two convicted killers, their loved ones, and the victim's families, that passiveness gains an unremitting power which puts everything into an emotional as well as intellectual perspective for us.

The failings of an unfair system, the society itself which breeds poverty and crime, the inconsolable emptiness left by death, are communicated with a strength of vision which is staggering. This last decade has seen a fascinating if unassuming body of work by the great Herzog. His documentaries Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss all penetrate the strange power within and without us all. Invincible, Rescue Dawn, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? all showed him at his most astute as a narrative artist.

His fascination with the mysteries of our world keeps his works alive with an air of sweet abandon. In his gaze, life shapes the tragedy of man. In this cycle of justice in our country, Herzog easily finds the abyss he knows too well. 

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