Gazing Into The Abyss: A Roundtable Discussion With Werner Herzog

Contributing Writer; Queens, New York (@jaceycockrobin)
Gazing Into The Abyss: A Roundtable Discussion With Werner Herzog
Herzog's latest, the death row documentary Into The Abyss, opened in select theaters on Friday, November 11th.

Werner Herzog is an imposing cinematic figure whose body of work casts a very long shadow. On warm summer days children frolic in his shade, while young lovers languish in the grass at his feet. Birds alight upon his outstretched hands as tandem bicyclists weave in and out of performing street mimes, re-enacting that famous scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

It's hard to believe, but 2012 will mark Herzog's 40th year in the movie business. He made his first short, Herakles, at the tender age of twenty, and has churned out an impressive number of documentary and narrative films ever since. My introduction to the man was Even Dwarfs Started Small, a chaotic allegory for personal liberation in which the inmates are running the proverbial asylum. Said inmates just so happen to be played exclusively by little people. Supposedly, Dwarfs was a big influence on the film version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. It certainly made a huge impact on my formative film-watching years.

Which is why engaging in conversation with the distinctive voice behind so many narrations was the opportunity of a small-time blogger's lifetime. To say that I was nervous would be an understatement. Herzog is a large man, both literally and figuratively, and he dominates any room he is in. I was also well aware that, much like fellow auteur David Lynch, he does not suffer fools, and is quick to make it known if he is in disagreement with you or your line of questioning. The fact that I was sharing the experience with four other writers didn't make it any less intimidating. 

So there we were, corralled in the bedroom of Herzog's hotel suite, five children clutching their golden tickets, while the director finished up another interview. Then, the doors were flung open and we were ushered into his glorious presence. A timer was set and we proceeded to participate in what could only be described as the journalistic equivalent of speed dating.

Herzog started out by asking if we had all seen the film, which we had. Most of us had seen it at a press screening, and he commented on how it was better to see the film with a large crowd, as the collective experience amplified the intensity. With the ice broken, we writers exchanged glances, jockeying for position, and then the first question was asked and we were off. 

QUESTION: What was it like interviewing Michael Perry, knowing that he wasn't going to be able to see the finished product?

WERNER HERZOG: Well, you have to face what the real world is. And it doesn't prevent me from talking straight to him. For example, he knew in writing before, and he knew verbatim when I saw him that this film was not meant as a platform to prove his innocence. "Are you still prepared to talk to me?" "Yes, of course." [He] accepted that and within 120 seconds I tell him that- his bad childhood I think I'm speaking about, the bad deck of cards that destiny dealt him- that doesn't exonerate... that doesn't necessarily mean that I have to like you.  You see, I'm very straight, and they all like me very much for that. And every single death row inmate wants me back, and I've seen them again, with one exception.

The rules are, you can see a death row inmate with a hiatus of at least 3 months in between, so that... the prison authorities simply do not want to make an inmate a regular on TV talk shows, and I understand that.

Q: Have any of the other subjects you interviewed seen the film?

WH: No, with one exception. Lisa Stotler, the woman who lost her brother in the homicide and her mother in the same crime. But I didn't show it to her, one of the producers showed it to her, and I think she loves the film as it is, and apparently she wrote me a four page letter, which I haven't received yet, unfortunately, but I will get it eventually. I believe she always felt safe with me, which is fairly rare in her situation. She instantly felt safe, which I think is a great compliment for me. I also think that she trusts in the film as it is. And of course the film is dedicated to her and to another family member of the victim, Charles Richardson, and in general to families of victims of violent crime. But the people in the film do not necessarily always have to see the movie first. I don't show a feature film with actors to the actors either. I just make them live with it as it is. There's this attitude of docility that they all have to like the film, those who have been in the film. [But] maybe somebody hates it- which I do not believe- but you have to face it, let it be. I've made a decent film, I'm proud of what I did, I can defend my position easily to anyone, so what's the big deal?

Q: There's so much empathy in the film- all of these characters are victims in one way or another. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the process of creating empathy for a character who could be vilified in a knee-jerk kind of way?

WH: Well, there's not great empathy with the perpetrators, for example. I tell Michael Perry, who is going to die in eight days, that I do not necessarily need to like him. And he accepts it. The film, of course, tries to look deep into the heart of everyone, and tries to look into the abysses of the human soul. And of course the film clearly has persons in it where you can tell how much I like them. For example, the young man who was stabbed with a screwdriver. He's a hero, because he was under life threatening attack, in a fight. A friend of his throws him a knife, right at his feet, and he doesn't pick it up. He looks at the knife and a flash of an idea comes through his mind, he wants to see his kids at night, and he doesn't pick it up, so... I think this is really heroic, because it was not just a fight- he was stabbed with a 20 inch screwdriver all the way through his thorax.

Q: And he didn't go to the hospital.

WH: He didn't go to the hospital either, which is totally crazy. 30 minutes later he was roofing a house. I actually asked a physician, he said, it's technically possible if the screwdriver hits behind the lungs, then the lungs wouldn't collapse. You'd have a chance. I tell him, you were lucky, and he says, yeah. Very lucky.

Q: I believe you're only given 30 minutes with the inmates, is that correct?

WH: No, 50.

Q: 50? So you get one shot, and this is your movie.

WH: Sometimes the guards who like me, would give me another few minutes. But normally you would have a soft hand on your shoulder after 48 minutes, meaning you've got 120 seconds left. Which, that's the rules and you have to cope with it as a filmmaker. But some of the people in the film, for example Jared, the man who was stabbed with the screwdriver, I have not seen more than 25 minutes in my life. He showed up on location with the young woman who was a former bartender where the perpetrators gave joyrides to the regulars. She brought the young man in tow and said, this is Jared, I just brought him along because he knew Perry and he knew Berket. I said to him, Jared, hi, and I felt the callouses on his hand and I immediately liked him. I said, you are a working man, and he said, yeah, I'm a working man. And I said, I had the same callouses because as a kid I worked as a welder in a steel factory. I worked the night shift, earning the money for my first movies. So he looked at me and I asked him, step out of earshot and step out of eyesight, I'm filming with her, let's not make her nervous. So he was at some distance, and I did not have more than 25, 30 minutes in my entire life with him. While, for example, the death house chaplain, the one who accompanies the convicted man who is going to die, he arrived on set and before he even said his name, before I could say my name, he said, quick, quick, I have to be in the death house in 40 minutes. So you have to deal with it.

Q: So it kind of fell together naturally?

WH: No, not naturally. It doesn't come naturally like rain, or if you pick up the rainwater and store if for the dry season. I'm a filmmaker and a story teller and I articulate and I focus, and I'm going after the deer that is fugitive.

Q: So you deal with things as they come along?

WH: You have to understand the heart of men and you have to be open to the unexpected. For example, the unexpected in the film was the urgency of life. That's why the film, it has a secondary title: Into The Abyss, then under it, in smaller print, A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life. It came out of the footage, and all of a sudden I thought, this is a film as much about the urgency of life as it is about the inevitability of death.

Q: Did you have any reservations when you took on the project, about not being certain about what sort of focus you'd have?

WH: No, I had a fairly clear focus. You're trying to hint at this extreme caution and political correctness. No, I'm a storyteller. I'm after something that is occurring. It's not that I create these cases. A court of law has found somebody guilty, a monstrous crime has happened- and by the way, the perpetrators are never monsters. People tell you all the time, ah, they're monsters, just shoot them. But nobody thinks of what the proper course of justice is. And of course they are always human. No matter how monstrous the crime was, I treat them like human beings.
So, my attitude is defensible, and I think it is right, and I'm proud of how I'm approaching this. And of course I have a certain pride in not being an advocate of capital punishment. But of course, my historical background is different, being German, with all the barbarism under the Nazi regime, the excessive amounts of capital punishment. Euthanasia- if you were insane you were worthless and would be killed by the state. Not to mention the genocide of 6 million people. It's not even an argument, it's just a story. And nobody in my group of peers, I find not a single one who would be pro capital punishment. But it's a different historical background, and I would be the very last one to tell the American people how to deal with their criminal justice. Particularly as a German, what can I say? But I leave no doubt that the filmmaker himself is not an advocate of capital punishment, and if you are pro capital punishment I respectfully disagree.

[It was at this point that I interjected with my first real question. I identify it as my own solely to bear the brunt of the humiliation, as a courtesy to my fellow writers. Alright, I might also be wearing it as a badge of honor, but don't tell anybody.]

JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY: Well, let me ask you this: In the film you say that no man should take another man's life, no matter what the reason-

WH: No, no, no. Stop it. No STATE should be in the capacity to kill off anyone for any reason. If you kill somebody, yes, fine. That's okay, as an individual. If you kill, it's not right, but it's acceptable, but you better face a court of law right then and there.

JC: Okay.

WH: You see I'm speaking of a state, don't misquote me so massively. The state. That's my opinion.

JC: Well then-

WH: And let me give you an exception. The only exception would be warfare. If you are under attack as a country you better rally your young men and defend yourself. Then the state would order to kill.

JC: Well I was wondering then if this is the way you've always felt? Because on the commentary on the Aguirre DVD you talk about that famous incident where you supposedly pulled a gun on Klaus Kinski-

WH: No. I never pulled a gun, but I threatened him.

JC: Yeah. Then you go on to say that-

WH: But again, that is an individual threat. If I had killed him, I would have faced the consequences in a court of law. Period. As simple as that.

JC: Would you have really shot him?

Well, that's another question. Sometimes, of course, you fabricate a wonderful scenario. By the way, at the same time, he had plotted to kill me, unbeknownst to each other, in the beautiful construct of our fantasies. Neither one of us killed the other one. But the mood, sometimes, exacerbates to such a degree that you are plotting murder, plotting a wild attack, plotting warefare... so fine, yes, it occurs to many of us. Maybe not all of us. But again, please make a distinction. If you kill someone, yes, it can happen, but you will face the consequences in a court of law.

[At this point, Herzog thankfully wandered off on one of his trademark tangents, and I slunk down in my chair to nurse my wounds.]

By the way, since I'm not in the business of Texas bashing, I believe Texas is the only state in the US where you can be convicted in a court of law by a jury, of capital murder, and you can walk free. A jury can decide to let you walk free. Wow. That's impressive for Texas. But of course there has to be massive mitigating circumstances. And some other rules apply. If you had been convicted of a felony before, you wouldn't be eligible.

[You'd think the other writers would have learned from my mistake, but no, the very next question resulted in what could almost be described as an argument. I guess Herzog was still feeling ornery.]

Q: May I ask you to defend something about your film?

WH: Defend? It doesn't need to be defended.

Q: Yes, but I-

WH: It's a wonderful movie. It stands on it's own feet. It can defend itself, but please, go ahead.

Q: [laughing] The case that your film discusses, it's become a very public case now. It's been written about, partly because you made a movie about it-

WH: Which case are you talking about?

Q: The case against Michael Perry.

WH: I've never seen that anything was written.

Q: There was an article in The Guardian...

WH: Yeah, but as a review of my film.

Q: No, no, no, no, no. I'm talking about the case itself- it's a source of public interest.

WH: I didn't even know. Yeah, of course, almost every death penalty case has a certain amount of public interest.

Q: People find it entertaining, and you've-

WH: I doubt it, but go ahead.

Q: Well, people attend the death penalty. It's happened since the guillotine, public hangings- people flock to public executions.

WH: Not since just the guillotine, it has been for ages. Jesus was crucified in public, on top of Golgotha, the hill, visible to the people, and it has gone on for time immemorial. So it's not an invention of the times of the guillotine .

Q: That's my point-

WH: Let's face it, The Guardian article, in a way, was triggered by knowing a film was made by me. And of course, more intensified interest was focused on this very case. But I think if there's entertainment value, thank god those times are over. Very few countries still have public executions. I think Saudi Arabia has it. Iran has it. China, I believe, quite often they will shoot you in public. America doesn't execute anyone as a public spectacle. Of course, you will see some state witnesses and families of the victim are allowed in in very small number, and some close family members of the executed are allowed in.

Q: The media does follow it, because it can be commercially...

WH: Not really. There aren't big things after an execution. For example, television doesn't have live reportage of it, like live reportage from the O.J. Simpson trial. You will never see it on American television that you have live coverage of an execution.

Q: But the coverage of it was structured so that we could imagine it in our heads.

WH: But you don't need a newspaper to write about it to understand that this is a significant, dramatic event.

[After this debacle, I didn't feel quite as bad, and the remainder of the interview went off without any further drubbings.]

Q: It is very clear what your personal attitude toward the death penalty is. But I thought one of the most affecting scenes was where Lisa Stotler talked about attending the execution, and the sensation that an enormous weight had been lifted. You put that in not long after the guy who did all the executions, talking about how he left and that no one should be allowed to do that. I think of good art as being nuanced and ambiguous... this film feels that way, even though there's a very clear point. What I'm wondering is how you went about constructing something like an argument without going into the realm of polemicism.

WH: Well, I think there is some sort of material for argument there. You shouldn't forget that Lisa Stotler, who very convincingly talks about a weight being lifted off her chest, right after that I asked her, would you be satisfied if there was an alternative- life in prison without the possibility of parol, and she says, yes, definitely. So that's surprising. I didn't expect it. [But there's a] pause- and then she says, but some people do not deserve to live. So she is vacillating.

Q: But who knows if she's being completely honest with herself when she says that.

WH: I do not doubt the integrity of anyone who is not the perpetrator. And when you listen to Fred Allen, who was an advocate of capital punishment, and did over 125 executions, who all of a sudden has, for him, and inexplicable breakdown, that's a very fascinating voice. Of course there's material there for consideration, for discussion, for debate. The film itself doesn't have a prefabricated opinion, agenda, or political target. It's not an issue film. I'm not an activist against the death penalty. I'm a filmmaker, and besides- I'm a guest in your country. I do not have the rights of voting. I can only vote in Germany.

Q: And yet it lays out a very compelling case, if you will, for why there is something inhumane about the death penalty.

WH: In my opinion, as I have a different historical background, yes, a question of humanity or human behavior is part of it. But it's also about how we deal with criminal justice, with retribution, with guilt, with innocence, understanding of the legal system, understanding of good and bad. It's very, very complex and unfortunately I don't have a prefabricated, easy answer. But I think it is a question of principle and you have to deal with it as a question of principle.

If you say there shouldn't be capital punishment but for the worst of all cases- Osama Bin Laden, for example- I personally would say that life in prison without parole would still be the option I choose. Strangely enough, I had a conversation with a lawyer in another case, and it was months before Osama Bin Laden was killed, and I said to him, let's say Osama Bin Laden- if he's attacked by a group of armed soldiers, it's a borderline combat situation. Yes, in such a scenario, a state can shoot and kill him. But this is part of warfare. Of course, it is still some sort of a gray zone. But if he had been captured, put him on trial in a court of law, and if I had been the judge or the jury, I would have sent him to solitary confinement till the end of his days, without any possibility of parole, period.

Q: Is your next project The Queen of the Desert?

WH: Well, there's a project about a female equivalent of Lawrence of Arabia, but it's not financed yet. I'm also doing four films on death row inmates. And I'm working as an actor in a Hollywood movie.

Q: The Tom Cruise movie? [One Shot]

WH: Yeah. And I'm doing my rogue film school, and I have four or five feature film projects, so it's just coming at me wildly, as usual. I never catch up in time.

Q: So is it likely that is going to happen some point down the line?

WH: If it's financed, yes. If not, no.

Q: Naomi Watts if rumored for the lead, is she still attached?

WH: It's not like we have a contract, but she would like to do it. If it's financed then yes, it is going to be done. If any one of the other films are financed, they will be done.

Q: Did you ever think you'd wind up being the villain in a Tom Cruise action movie?

WH: Well, it came as some sort of surprise, but I'm good as a villain.

[You certainly are, Werner, and we love you all the more for it.]


Joshua Chaplinsky is the senior editor for He also writes for He was a guitarist in the band SpeedSpeedSpeed, and is the poison pen behind thejamminjabber, although he's not so sure he should admit it.

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