Life in Oblivion

in 50th Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Victoria Smirnova Mayzel

“Tell me your collision with a squirrel” – that’s the beginning of the interview by Werner Herzog with a priest of prison cemetery. On a lawn lit with sun he is telling about the squirrel who had a narrow escape from crash under his car wheels. “Why does God allow death penalty?” – asks Herzog. Tears come into the priest’s eyes and, as if apologizing for the ethical indiscretion of the question, he tell how he enjoys playing golf watching trees or squirrels play as he admires the miracle of Godly creation. Ultimately, we are not granted the knowledge about the divine plans.

Werner Herzog’s “Into Abyss” is about the execution of death penalties in the prison of Hastonville, Texas. Herzog talks to the condemned to death, interviews the relatives of victims and murderers alike, examines video records, in short, doesn’t leave the territory of traditional reporting with its concise style tinged with some sentimentality.

The crime itself is obvious: the witnesses are interrogated, fingerprints are checked, the motive as strikingly trivial as ever are found out. Boys from a trailer dreamed about sports Camaro which stood in the garage of one friend. They killed three for it, then went to a pub and conjured up an implausible story about winning a lottery.

Incidentally, the car was in their possession for 72 hours until police arrested them. Further story refers rather to the feelings of victims or killers.

Herzog doesn’t asks about motives in his movie. The murder just makes visible the dramatic opacity of life ruled by blind determinism. It’s no coincidence that the biographies of victims and their murderers are oddly similar. A person in six years lost all her family: one died from overdose of heroine, another went mad. The relatives of the murderer are incarcerated in the same Hastonville’s prison.

The investigation, on the contrary, leads to the area of intelligible, That’s why the stories of the condemned, their falseexcuses, affected stoicism, attempts to construct a biography according to more harmonious and pathetically human laws, are so important for Herzog. Thus, almost all interviews end in the same way. The camera lingers on the character for some time. This caesura, deliberate pause is necessary for what has been said to reveal its own helplessness, to lead further, to ask for more arguments and justifications.

One can say that Herzog still wishes to approach the edge and look into the abyss of reality.

The faith in eccentric images which extend themselves beyond any reality due to their very eccentricity, still matters. Therefore, even if the stories of prisoners or their relatives are confabulated, even if they are full of amazing (in particular for those who remain in oblivion) signs and excuses, they still remain within the realm of human, within language which throws the characters in place where their death – coercive – escapes any rationality.

Ultimately, it is this, essentially modest, movie that turns out to be immensely important in the story that over thousand years plays itself between determinism (automatic murder) and ethics (justification of the death-penalty).

For, unlikely the crimes, always anonymous (in essence, not in fact), the system of the punishment enforcement is presented in records and investigatory examination, it is clear and verifiable up to a millimeter. But what does it encounter in the end? The anonymous punishment conveyor itself in which executor is alienated from executed procedure.

At some point this apparently smoothly running conveyor cracks – and the executioner shivers as he recalls an executed woman and words of gratitude she said to him before the lethal injection.

He found out her name, at once remembered the others which, as he said, he hadn’t remember before. And since then he cannot recall her as any other destined to coercive death, one and the same for all of them. And it is at this very moment that universal and abstract law meets unique and non-universal humanity.

Edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum