Essay

Let's Explore The

First Five Minutes

Of Herzog's

'Into The Abyss'

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By Garret Harkawik

 murder and the resulting investigation, but is really more of an examination of the death penalty in America. 

 

The film opens with a five-minute scene where a prison chaplain discusses his experiences with inmates being put to death.  The opening sequence contains only 10 cuts and appears to be a by-the-books piece of documentary filmmaking.  However, there's a lot to uncover about the meaning of this sequence if you're willing to examine it as something more than a typical documentary interview.

 

We open on Reverend Richard Lopez, and hear Herzog ask his first question off camera.  Herzog (like Morris) has allowed his voice to permeate into his documentaries more and more as his career continues and it's this film where it feels most appropriate.  We stay on the subject as he answers a few questions, and only cut away to the cemetery behind him when he brings it up.  All the cuts are fairly seamless due to the two-camera setup used to shoot the interview, that is until the end.  The reverend gets emotional, and there's a jump cut to him looking silently as an ominous music cue fades in (by Mark Degli Antoni, formerly of Soul Coughing).

n it's face, the opening of Into The Abyss (and the film as a whole) is deceptively simple.  The film recalls Erroll Morris's early works, in that it's based almost entirely around presentationally-staged interviews with very little B-Roll.  The film is ostensibly about a

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 From a technical standpoint, this last shot of the Reverend doesn't necessarily come from the same part of the interview as the preceding soundbite where he seems to be getting choked up - it may have very well come from the beginning of the shoot while the crew was getting set up, or during a break in the questions.  He seems sad and pensive because the clip is juxtaposed with one of him where he's sad.  It's basic film editing theory that goes back to the days of Pavlov's dog.  The jump cut is used for emotion, not out of necessity (since they clearly had two cameras running).  

Film technique aside, there's so much more going on than just a simple interview.  If you examine the questions, answers and how they're arranged you get a sense that Herzog is doing something a little more than just setting up the topic of his film.  

 

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The interview begins with Lopez asserting that God is caring, merciful and ever-present and that his participation in executions is to remind the inmates of this.  Later in the interview, Herzog asks "Why does God allow capital punishment?"  Lopez responds that he doesn't know and then in a seeming non-sequitur he says that God has created so many things and begins to tell a story about golfing.  I assume that this second part is taken from another part of the interview, and placed here in order to create a juxtaposition with the preceding question.  Lopez recounts a story about how he likes to take in the majesty of God while golfing, prompting Herzog to ask him to describe an encounter with a squirrel (again, quite a non-sequitur).  Lopez says that once he was driving his golf cart and had to break suddenly to avoid hitting two squirrels.  He says this experience reminds him of being with prisoners who are being put to death - the difference being he can (and does) save the squirrels, but not the prisoners.

By joining this story about the squirrels with Lopez's response to the question about why God allows capital punishment, Herzog is drawing a link between Lopez's act of mercy and the absence of mercy from God.  Lopez chooses to save the squirrels, God chooses not to (or perhaps he just doesn't exist?).  A simple act of compassion is easy when it comes to squirrels, but seemingly impossible for humans.  

Essentially, we're alone in a meaningless world.

Meaninglessness crops up again and again throughout the film - whether it's the motivation behind the murder central to the story, or the results of sentencing someone to death.  In a lot of ways this film feels like an inverse of Morris's 'The Thin Blue Line' (both films feature stories of men on death row) - Morris's film is about finding the truth behind a crime and exonerating an innocent man.  Herzog's film is much less interested in the specifics of the crime, or the intent behind it.  It's a bird's-eye view of morality in American justice. 

 

The late Roger Ebert wrote that "In this film, Herzog simply looks.  He always seems to know where to look."  No offense to Ebert, but I disagree.  Herzog is using the established form of documentary the subtly explore themes that he has returned to time and again throughout his work.

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Copyright 2018 Garret Harkawik