Werner Herzog meditates on life and death in his restrained 2011 documentary Into the Abyss.
The most compelling evidence one could submit against the death penalty is the existence of human life. Other arguable points could be made, of course: how effectively it deters future potential crimes, the cost of executing someone vs keeping them alive, and lofty ideals about justice and retribution, but the only way to dismiss human life is to ignore it.
In that sense, Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary Into the Abyss is enormously anti-capital punishment. We’re told the story of a triple-homicide that occurred in 2001 in Conroe, Texas, and two young men are sitting in prison (one awaiting execution, the other with a life sentence), both blaming the other for the murders. We spend considerable time with the alleged perpetrators, as well as their families, the families and friends of the victims, and various others (a woman who married one of the men after his conviction; a former executor who quit the profession in 2000). The two convicts are given a voice, and that voice show us that they’re living beings.
In another sense, Into the Abyss avidly avoids taking any sort of stance. We have great sympathy for the friends and family of those affected by the murders, notably the brother of one of the victims, and the sister of another. We believe her when she says “a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders” after the execution, and when asked if Jesus would have approved of capital punishment, states, “probably not, but some people don’t deserve to live.” It’s a message that will resonate with defenders of the death penalty, who will surely walk away from this film feeling resolute in their beliefs – hardly what one would expect from a film by someone so openly anti-death penalty (Herzog states at the beginning of each episode of his miniseries On Death Row, “As a German, coming from a different historical background and being a guest in the United States, I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment”).
But this isn’t really a movie about sides. In the end, viewers with opinions on both ends of the spectrum will be left with thoughts to chew on. What are we meant to do with individuals who commit the most monstrous crimes? Some come from terribly abusive backgrounds, and society may be asked why it’s turned a blind eye to them. Others simply kill, rape, or torture for no reason, and we may never understand why or how they became capable of doing these things. What Herzog does is make us realize that the individuals on death row are not monsters, and we’re obliged to witness their life and immediacy, detached from any opinion about their claims of innocence.
During one particularly poignant scene, the sister of one of the victims is asked why the criminals had killed her brother. She stumbles over her words for a moment, then admits, “I don’t know, I don’t have an answer.” More than an argument for or against the death penalty, Into the Abyss makes us face the cruelty that human beings are capable of, and invites us to ask whether we too are capable of such ugliness.