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Telluride 2011: 'Into the Abyss' vs. 'Pina' in a Documentary Doubleheader

Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders deliver death and beautiful longing.

Into the Abyss
"Into the Abyss"

Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss and Wim Wenders’ Pina made for quite the double header Saturday afternoon. One probes the carnival of misery surrounding a triple murder and execution in Texas, the other is a 3D exploration of the otherworldly choreography of Pina Bausch. Strangely, the latter is the one that seemed overlong.

Abyss, subtitled A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, is a crushing account of the wreckage caused by two Texas teens who were convicted of killing three people over their desire to steal a car. Herzog alternates between chapter titles such as “Time and Emptiness” and “The Protocol of Death” with “A Glimmer of Hope” and “The Urgency of Life” to ultimately make his case for ending the death penalty, despite the violent destruction men can cause.

The film is unrelentingly grim and full of sadness as no one connected to the crime is spared the psychological scars of the machinery of death — whether random and pointless or sanctioned by the law and the state. Herzog includes interviews and images that are as unshakable for viewers as they are for those affected, such as an imprisoned father's memory of riding a prison transfer bus handcuffed to his own son.

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The filmmaker neglects to ask a few obvious questions of his subjects, but he also manages to cut to the core of one priest’s conscience with the question: “Tell me an encounter with a squirrel.” The response, which begins the film, is devastating. Also to his credit, Herzog never makes explicit the economic and educational deficiencies that led to much of the wretched behavior on display. It didn’t need to be said, and his own conscience knew that.

During the introduction to his film at the Palm, Herzog was the first to admit that a great many of his films could have been titled “Into the Abyss,” since much of his fiction and nonfiction work delves into the darker sides of humanity or the “new abysses that open up” when you really look into people’s lives. Herzog also said that the world of incarceration and punishment is one that has fascinated him since his teens, when he first drew up plans to explore Straubing prison in Bavaria in the late 1950s.