“Into the Abyss,” Werner Herzog’s death-penalty film, comes to ID

When Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss debuted at various film festivals from Telluride to Toronto in September 2011, rave reviews and incredible buzz followed in the wake of those premieres. No real surprise there — I don’t think I’ve met a film festival fan yet who didn’t adore not only Herzog’s work, but the man himself as well. Into the Abyss has also met with a good deal of controversy — also unsurprisingly — because of its examination of the penal system and in particular the impact of life in prison and the irrevocable and shattering effect the death penalty has on everybody involved. The film makes its television premiere on Investigation Discovery Tuesday, Oct. 23 at 8pm ET/PT.

Into the Abyss focuses on the crime and the aftermath of a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas, where Herzog and his crew traveled to gain perspective and insight on what happens to a prisoner once a murder conviction is obtained. Herzog interviews two young perpetrators of the Conroe crime, one of whom will spend the rest of his life in prison. The other was executed eight days after the Into the Abyss interview with the director. It’s a bleak, hard approach perfectly consistent with Herzog’s worldview and his typically unflinching manner of getting to the heart of truths dark and terrible.

Those with a passion for the death penalty issue one way or the other will have something to say about Herzog’s treatment of the subject, for sure. Opponents will no doubt find his treatment illuminating and compelling. Death penalty advocates — and likely many victims’ family members — will have a different opinion, and might even find Into the Abyss a dangerous statement. Whatever your take, this remains a powerful film by one of the most skilled directors working in the documentary genre, and will unsettle anyone settling in to watch it.


Photo: Investigation Discovery