INTO THE ABYSS: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life

(dir Werner Herzog, Germany/Canada, 2011, 106 min)

Introduction by Christian Rogowski (Amherst College)
at the MMFF screening on 2/29/2012

Werner Herzog was born in Munich, Germany, in 1942 and emerged in the late 1960s as one of the most celebrated figures of what was then called the New German Cinema, a loose configuration of film makers who broke with West Germany’s mainstream film industry, which they rejected as stagnant, politically compromised, escapist, and old-fashioned.  One of the formative experiences in his youth was being evacuated from his hometown during the last phase of World War II, after the building next to his home was bombed, and witnessing the aerial bombardments of Munich from a distance, from the small village in Bavaria to which his family had escaped.

It is tempting to speculate that this experience of displacement lies at the heart of Herzog’s approach to film making: an unsettling recognition that what counts for “normal life” can be disrupted or destroyed at a moment’s notice; and an ambivalent fascination with extreme circumstances or situations, instances when a seemingly harmonious surface is punctured to reveal a deeper, hidden truth. It is Herzog’s deep and serious conviction that humankind needs to confront these truths in order to maintain – or regain – its sanity.  In an age when we are flooded by a constant barrage of cheap, inauthentic, mass-produced images, Herzog is driven to pursue what he himself calls an “ecstatic truth,” one that is grounded in authentic images and stories.  In his eyes, this pursuit is profoundly important and existentially necessary for the health of our civilization.

Herzog’s work has always blurred the distinction between “real” and “imaginary, “fact” and “fantasy,” “fiction” and “documentary;” and his pursuit of “ecstatic truth” has taken him to all corners of the globe and all sorts of extremes of experience.  In the process, his work has become shrouded in legends and anecdotes: he supposedly started out making movies with a camera he stole from the Munich Film School; he famously walked several hundred miles through ice and snow, from Munich to Paris, when he heard that Lotte H. Eisner, the German-Jewish film critic and a kind of patron saint of the New German Cinema, had fallen seriously ill, convinced that she would survive if he showed up at her bedside (and she did!); he had the entire cast of Heart of Glass (1976) hypnotized in order to create the desired trance-like effect of their performances; he risked his life and that of his crew by ignoring warnings and filming an erupting volcano and the inhabitants who refused to leave their homes on the volcanic island; he is said to have been almost killed – five times – during the making of Fitzcarraldo (1982), which involved hauling an actual ship over a mountain range in the Amazon jungle; he continued a TV interview with the BBC unfazed despite being hit by an air rifle bullet that scraped his arm.

Herzog clearly relishes the public image of the maverick film maker such incidents have generated, but this image sometimes obscures the deeply ethical impulse behind his film making.  In April 2006, when Herzog visited Amherst College, he addressed his reputation as a supposedly “eccentric” film maker: the moniker, he argued, posits a particular notion of that constitutes the “center” from which something supposedly deviates (as “ec-centric”).  He claimed that what most people embrace as the norm is merely the superficial “reality of bankers” and that the truth in a more fundamental sense is actually to be found in what tends to be relegated to the margins.

Tonight’s film, Into the Abyss is a case in point: it is centered on a spectacular case of triple murder committed in 2001 by two teenage boys, when the ostensibly idyllic, normal life of a family in rural Texas was brutally and inexplicably punctured by violent crime.  As you will see, the film is not a “regular” documentary: Herzog makes no claim to political neutrality or academic objectivity in the traditional sense.  With an unflinching, yet gentle curiosity, Herzog’s film strips away layer upon layer of the story to reveal the stunning complexity of a chaotic, tragic, and often absurd situation and the equally stunning complexity and sheer humanity of the people who find themselves caught up in a contradictory web of puzzling events and conflicting emotions.

Into the Abyss is subtitled “A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life” – indicating that the film does not merely seek to address political issues like the death penalty, the judicial system, or the connection between social ills and crime, but instead encourages its audience to ponder larger, existential questions about what it means to live in a world in which the events described can and do happen.  Perhaps it is only an ostensibly “eccentric” gaze that gets to the center of what matters.

[trailer | official site]