How should gruesome killers be punished?

In Werner Herzog's chilling new death-penalty documentary, the accused are probably guilty -- but still human

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 11, 2011 7:04PM (EST)

Werner Herzog       (IFC Films)
Werner Herzog (IFC Films)

Unsurprisingly, Werner Herzog's death-penalty documentary, "Into the Abyss," is not like anyone else's. While the German filmmaker makes no attempt to conceal his personal opinion -- he opposes capital punishment -- his exploration of a horrifying Texas triple homicide has no specific social or political agenda. "Into the Abyss" doesn't even try to answer the question of why Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two rootless teenagers in Conroe, Texas, apparently killed three people (one of them an elderly woman who was in the middle of baking cookies) along the way to stealing a car that would be in their possession less than 72 hours.

Nor does Herzog directly address the question of how people like that should be punished, or whether it accomplished anything for the state of Texas to put the jug-eared, boyish Perry to death, eight days after Herzog interviewed him. You might call "Into the Abyss" a forensic film about murder in America, and it's definitely and perhaps intentionally reminiscent of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." But while Herzog does explore the gruesome details of the crime, he is ultimately more interested in the emotional and philosophical forensics of the Conroe case. He wants us to confront the fact that Perry and Burkett (who was spared execution and is now serving a 40-year sentence) were human beings despite their terrible crimes, and also to face the human damage they inflicted on an entire community.

With his usual uncanny skill as an interviewer and eye for eccentric detail, the director of "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," "Grizzly Man" and the Oscar-nominated "Encounters at the End of the World" talks to the murderers and to their victims' families, to a longtime Texas executioner who now has second thoughts and to a death-house chaplain who is brought to tears by recounting a golf-course encounter with a squirrel as a metaphor. Both Michael Perry and Jason Burkett proclaim their innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence, and while I don't support the death penalty either, I'm grateful that neither of them is walking the streets. "Into the Abyss" goes from farce to tragedy, sometimes in the same moment, as when Herzog interviews the, um, intriguing young woman who married Burkett in prison and mysteriously became pregnant by him. (He isn't permitted conjugal visits; they evidently found a way to smuggle out a viable semen sample.)

There is no farce, however, in Herzog's conversation with Jason Burkett's father, Delbert, himself a convicted murder who is literally housed in a prison across the street from his son. When Herzog hounds Delbert Burkett to discuss an incident when he and Jason were transported together on a prison bus, handcuffed wrist to wrist, I at first felt angry at the director. Why not leave the poor old bastard alone? He's evidently suffered enough. But finally Herzog's tough-love therapy turns out all right. Delbert Burkett may never have another chance to tell the world that he's a man with a moral vision of the universe, not a murderous monster, that he was capable of imagining a family life that didn't turn out this way, and that he felt authentic guilt and shame.

Herzog is an avowed atheist, but in a certain sense his films, especially in recent years, have become highly spiritual in focus. Thanks to its subject and its characters "Into the Abyss" is suffused with a Christian religiosity that the director treats with great respect. Although he's lived in the United States for many years, Herzog remains an outsider, an observer, who comes to a quintessentially American event like the Conroe murders with no judgment and no preconceptions. In our telephone conversation, he refused to bash America for our high rates of crime and incarceration, and spoke eloquently about the openness with which the state of Texas handles executions. Texas has put 11 people to death so far this year, and executed 18 last year, including Michael Perry, who died by lethal injection on July 2, 2010.

Werner, it isn't quite accurate to call this a film about the death penalty, is it? I mean, that subject certainly plays a role, but it's not your central concern.

Yes, that's true. In many cases people make films that try to prove the innocence of an inmate. For example, in the case of Errol Morris' film ["The Thin Blue Line"] the inmate was actually released. And recently there was the case where the three young men in West Memphis got out. [As seen in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's "Paradise Lost 3."] Well, that's a very fine or legitimate kind of film; it has a real issue and that's the guilt or innocence of someone.

In my case, I'm not after guilt or innocence, and all the people with whom I talk know it in advance. I tell them, this is not my business. Guilt or innocence is a question that can be solved only by a court of law and by a jury. And in this case, Perry-Burkett, guilt, in my opinion -- and I've read all the court transcripts and read the entire case file -- was pretty much beyond doubt. Both of them maintain their innocence, and I give them the chance to do so and say so.

You see, it's not an issue film for or against capital punishment. I, the filmmaker, am not in favor of capital punishment. I respectfully disagree with this practice. But let's face it -- as a German I should be the last one to tell anyone how to handle justice!

You interviewed both of the convicted murderers in this case, but it's important to note that you also spent a lot of time with family members of the victims. In fact, the film is dedicated to Lisa Stotler-Balloun, whose mother and brother were both killed, and Charles Richardson, whose younger brother was one of the victims.

What is quite often overlooked in the fascination with senseless, monstrous crimes is the side of the families of the victims. I really wanted to give them a voice, and I wanted to show the repercussions of these senseless murders. That's why they're in there. It was very moving and compelling to me, and ultimately the film is dedicated to Lisa and to Charles Richardson, who both lost family members and are still suffering, are still living as if in a void. Their voices are very important in the film.

When you say they're living in a void, is that what the title "Into the Abyss" refers to?

In a way, yes. Wherever you look, there is another abyss, and you as an audience can look into the deepest recesses of the human soul. Literature or poetry often tries to look deep inside ourselves, and many of my films offer this kind of vertical look into our condition. I have said, as a joke, that "Into the Abyss" could have been the title for many of my films!

What was it that drew you to this case in particular?

I think it was the senselessness of the crime. A triple homicide so senseless that it gives you vertigo. You see, there are murders -- a shootout with police, or somebody stalks a young woman, sexually assaults her and murders her -- where you can sense there was an aim. It doesn't make it better or worse, but sometimes the utter senselessness of a murder is so staggering, like in this case. And then, of course, all the ramifications. For the families of the victims it was very, very intense. It's a film about families of victims of violent crime, and it's a little bit of an American gothic. When you listen to the young man [a former acquaintance of Jason Burkett] who was stabbed with a screwdriver, and who was illiterate until very recently and struggled out of it -- it's a wonderful, wonderful story, a great achievement.

Well, yeah. It struck me that you're telling a very intimate story about people's lives in a part of the country that isn't often shown in the movies, and where most people who go to see documentary films have probably never been.

Yeah. Cinema doesn't normally look at these parts of the country and these types of people. But it's good that they have a presence, they have a voice. When you see a man like Fred Allen, who was the former captain of the tie-down team in the death chamber, who would strap you to the gurney. And after 125 executions, of which he was a proponent, he has a breakdown and cannot do it anymore. He has such a wonderful presence and credibility and integrity. I have the feeling this man is a national treasure.

That's an extraordinary interview. It sort of sneaks up on you, the fact that this very ordinary, macho-seeming Texas guy has been profoundly traumatized.

He describes it very well. In a way, the fact that he cannot really describe what happened to him is even more compelling. He speaks about the fact that he started to shake uncontrollably and I asked him how bad a shake. He looks at me and says, "It was a shake." It's very good.

I know you've said repeatedly that you don't believe in God. A lot of the people you're interviewing here do believe in God, and there's a strong element of spirituality in this film.

Well, I try to look into the deepest recesses of the human soul. It's always then that the real spirit of human beings is becoming evident. You see, when you have exactly 50 minutes on death row to have a conversation with someone who is expecting his execution, there is no small talk. You go immediately as deep as it gets.

You open the film by interviewing the death-row chaplain, who at first seems like this strange, kind of off-putting guy with weird hair and a bad suit. And then it all changes.

Yeah, well I met him for only 25 minutes in my entire life. When he arrived at the cemetery he tapped at his wristwatch and said, "Quick, quick. I have to be at the death house in 40 minutes." So you don't have any time for introductions. He appeared to be someone almost like a TV preacher, speaking about the beauty of creation and how we have a forgiving, loving God who in paradise awaits everyone. I thought, no, I need to crack him open. So very cheerfully, from behind the camera, I ask him to tell me about an encounter with a squirrel. And all of a sudden he unravels. Fifteen seconds later he is close to tears. He unravels, and you look deep inside him. And this question about an encounter with a squirrel, that's something you really do not learn in film school. How does it function? It's inexplicable. That's why I'm a filmmaker.

Talk a little bit about Delbert Burkett, Jason's father, whom you interviewed in prison. He seems so full of regret and wisdom at this point in his life. I feel tremendous compassion for him, and at the same time you have to say: It's kind of late for that, isn't it?

He's such a tragic figure in a way, the whole human tragedy somehow comes across. When I ask him about being on a prison bus with his son, handcuffed wrist to wrist with him, and I asked him how it felt, after so many years, to feel the hand of your son. And he said, "No, I can't." I say, please, explain it to us. He again says, "No, I can't." I keep insisting and what he finally says is very profound and very tragic. What is also significant is that it's not only him. I've heard it many times from other death-row inmates who are not in this film, but will be in other television films. Asking them about children, and how we should raise children, and they always talk about small family values, which we have a tendency of deriding easily. No! It's something wonderful and serious, and death-row inmates tell you about family values more convincingly than anyone else ever could.

It's a basic tenet of sociology: Even people who have violated social codes, generally speaking, still believe in them. You go into death row, and maybe you expect hardened, vicious criminals who hate society. But it isn't like that.

They are all much more compelling than any preacher or anyone who educates you. It sounds like a contradiction, but it's at least a statistical fact that I have come across.

The film can't possibly answer this question, but it does make you consider the fact that we live in such a violent society, compared to other developed nations.

No, I would say America is, let me put it in quotes, "average." Of course, let's say that per capita there are too many people in prison, but that's another story. When it comes to capital punishment, all the real populous nations in the world have capital punishment: China, Japan, Russia, Pakistan, you name it. I simply respectfully disagree with the practice, in my case because I come from a quite different historical background. That's the only reason; I don't even have a philosophical argument. I only have a story, and that's a story about the barbarism of the Nazi time, when there was an excessive amount of capital punishment. There was euthanasia, where you would be killed by the state for being insane or retarded, and on top of that there was the genocide of 6 million Jewish people. End of story. I cannot be an advocate of capital punishment. For me, it's a question of principle: A state should not be allowed to kill anyone for any reason. The only exception would be warfare.

OK, but only a few nations execute more people than we do, and I don't know that any of them are democracies. Possibly South Africa. And then, even by American standards, Texas is a special case.

I'm sorry, I'm not in the business of Texas-bashing. Being quite convinced as a state about the justice of capital punishment, Texas makes it more transparent than any other state. And you should not forget that Texas is the only state in the United States where a jury can find you guilty of first-degree murder, of capital murder, and then in the punishment phase can let you walk free. Of course there have to be massive mitigating circumstances, and you must have never committed a previous felony. So there are rules, but they can convict you of murder and let you walk.

Well, it's interesting that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice allowed you to interview Michael Perry, and also allowed you to film inside the execution chamber. Which is a tremendously chilling piece of footage.

Exactly, yes. They make it transparent, they do not hide it. They tell you, this is how we do it, these are our procedures, you have access. They are not hiding anything.

Did you have any emotions about shooting inside the death house? Or were your concerns purely technical at that point?

That's a good question, but again, I had exactly 50 minutes. You have to perform from the first second, you have to deliver. You have to hit the right tone. There's not much time for emotion and reflection. That comes later, during the editing, and then that footage became so intense that both my editor and I started smoking again. We would scramble out into the street every hour and a half or so and hang onto a cigarette.

What distinguishes death-row inmates, and what makes their perspective unique, is that they know exactly how they will die and exactly when they will die, and we do not. That makes the conversation so intense, but it's very much about us as well. Secretly, it's about us.

About how we face death and mortality, you mean?

Yes, but not only that. How we face life, how we forget to cherish the fantastic privilege that we can open and close a door behind us. That we get to see the magnificence of the world, of creation. It can be an abandoned gas station or a cow in a field, and the film makes it clear that these moments are priceless. They are a phenomenal gift, and we overlook it. My senses toward the world are very, very sharpened by this.

We learn a great deal about Jason Burkett's family and background in the film, but very little about Michael Perry, beyond your interview with him.

Well, the reason was that he was executed eight days after my conversation with him. I had no chance to speak with him again. Unfortunately his father had just died, and his mother refused to appear on camera. Months after the execution I cautiously asked again, and she categorically declined. I did not want to bother her any further. You have to leave them in peace; you have to know when to push and when not to. So we did not have anyone from the family who could tell us about him.

He's an enigma, which may serve the film in some ways.

Yes, but you also see a real human being. He seems completely oblivious to his situation. He tells me about a canoe excursion he took to the Everglades when he was 13. At the end he thanked me, he said, "Man, I didn't sense that I was in a cage and I was gonna die in eight days. I was free like a child for an hour." When he tells me about seeing alligators and monkeys in the Everglades, it's as if he were not locked away in a tiny cage.

I must say, however, that of all the men and one woman I have seen on death row, my instincts tell me he was the most dangerous of all of them.

That's fascinating. Well, it's very difficult to connect the person we see you speaking to -- who seems like a kid, really -- to the horrible crimes he apparently committed. Brutally murdering an old woman to steal her car. It's incomprehensible.

Yeah. And of course I allow him, and allow everyone, to be a human being. It's so easy to say, and I hear it all the time, "They are monsters. Just get rid of them." No, the crimes are monstrous but the perpetrators are human. And they never lose the humanness that is in them.

"Into the Abyss" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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