Think of Herzog and you think of monomania. He tends towards stories of single-minded individuals embarking upon insane projects to bend an indifferent world to their desires, or facing off against preposterous odds in pursuit of brute survival. Beneath such tales is the tug of ecstasy – a rapturous state of standing outside the self whose dark twin is a kind of obscene oblivion, an intimation of existential futility that links Kaspar Hauser and the unknown artists of last year’s ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’.
‘Into the Abyss’ is a Herzog film focused not on an individual but a situation: the conviction of two men for the horribly banal 2001 murder of a Texan nurse, her son and his friend, and the impending execution of one of those convicted. As well as interviewing the prisoners, Herzog talks to their loved ones; to the victims’ families; and to people in Texas’s capital punishment system.
The result is gripping, moving and revelatory, an unabashed if implicit critique of the death penalty. The abyss looms dark indeed but the picture pulses with the insistent peculiarities of life as it is lived by wilful individuals. For while Herzog shows appropriate sobriety, he couldn’t make a solemn film if he tried: the most moving observation comes in an anecdote about a squirrel and a golf cart.