As beloved as filmmaker Werner Herzog is by cineastes and hipsters alike, sometimes the worst part of his documentaries is Herzog himself. Inserting himself into his movies through pseudo-poetic voiceovers and coy digressions, Herzog can be as bad as a Michael Moore in overshadowing his subjects with his own self-regard. Maybe that's why I love his latest, "Into the Abyss," so much. Though it very much bears Herzog's stamp, he mostly stays out of the way, which is an appropriate approach considering his documentary concerns two Texas prisoners convicted for murdering three people.
Reportedly filmed and edited rather quickly, "Into the Abyss" looks at the fallout from an October 2001 triple-murder in Conroe, Texas. Michael James Perry and Jason Burkett were convicted of killing Sandra Stotler and two teens, one of whom was the mother's son. The killings were committed because of a Camaro that the Stotlers owned that the murderers wanted. In the documentary, Herzog interviews the two convicted men, some of the victims' family members, and other people involved with the investigation or Perry's forthcoming execution. (Perry was executed July 1, 2010, and Herzog interviewed him eight days earlier.)
What you notice almost immediately is that "Into the Abyss" is without narration. Herzog still inserts himself into the material -- he makes it perfectly clear he's opposed to the death sentence during his interviews -- but the restraint he largely shows in the film allows his subjects to emerge without much commentary. That turns out to be a terrific choice since almost everyone in the documentary is a fascinating, thoughtful individual, even if that person's lack of education might not make him or her particularly articulate. Whereas in other Herzog films you can feel him subtly signaling the audience which subjects to mock, "Into the Abyss" shows a respectfulness to the interviewees.
Or maybe Herzog simply found these people as touching as I did. Whether it's the Stotler family member who talks about the wave of deaths that have haunted her life or Delbert Burkett (the father of Jason and another son who's also in prison), "Into the Abyss" stays back a bit to let people explain themselves as plainly as they can, which ironically ends up being a lot more unexpectedly poetic than all of the profound wisdom Herzog usually gifts us with in his voiceovers. Herzog is against capital punishment, but he's not blind to the fact that these two men killed three people for something so minor as a car. But rather than pounding his points home, he lets others speak, allowing for both pro and con arguments in his film.
Of late, it seems as if Herzog has been too busy playing the exaggerated comic version of himself that's become his persona: the funny-talking German guy with the pretentious, loopy ideas. That doesn't happen in "Into the Abyss," perhaps in part because the film was originally planned to be one in a series of television documentaries about capital cases. There's less of Herzog in "Into the Abyss," and yet as an artistic statement it feels like there's more of him than usual. Whatever the reason, this sobering, moving film is one of his best in a long time, reminding us (and hopefully him) that before he became a personality he was a great filmmaker. He still is.