When great filmmakers really hit their stride, there is a certain kind of magic that seems to course through their careers. Maybe it's just that indefinable artistry that makes one person a visionary, finally blooming into full flower; or it could be a combination of things—a hit picture that opens doors to new and talented collaborators, to better equipment and bigger budgets, to wider or more thoughtful distribution. Whatever it is, this is Werner Herzog's time.
It's been a long time coming. The Munich-born director first gained cinematic recognition in the 1970s with films like Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Stroszek, movies that managed to celebrate humanity at its most futile. Since then, his penchant for the absurd—his Fitzcarraldo (1982) told the based-in-truth tale of a steamship being pulled over a mountain—has made him a deserved favorite of the art house crowd.
Yet it's really only in the last half decade that Herzog has broken through to a wider audience—and here I think it's less that Herzog has changed in any fundamental way than that we have finally come around to his view of the world around us: fascinating, infuriating, and worthy of our most intense obsessions. When I look back at my columns covering his most recent work, I'm shocked at just how high he has managed to set the bar, especially with his documentary features: starting with the 2005 film Grizzly Man, Herzog has given us a string of absorbing work that focuses on everything from ancient cave art to life at an Antarctic research station, all of it approached from the slightly askew angle that is Herzog's natural path.
Into The Abyss is the director's latest work. Now screening at Pleasant Street Theater, it continues his documentary trend, but this new film turns the focus inward. Instead of the grand landscapes of his recent work, Herzog here trains his lens on the most intimate of human subjects: death. Beginning with an exploration of a triple murder in Texas, Herzog branches out to ask why humans kill—and then circles out one level more to ask why we, as a nation, kill our criminals.
Herzog has been around long enough to know that easy answers are unexamined answers. What's worse, they're uninteresting. To truly glimpse what he calls "the abyss of the human soul," Herzog talks to many of the people touched by the horror that launches his film. Not only does he speak to the families of the victims and the killers; he also sits down with a state executioner and a pastor to discuss what it's like to bear witness to a premeditated death. And, amazingly, he is able to interview Michael Perry, a 20-something death-row inmate scheduled to die just a week from the day of his interview. If it sounds heavy, it is—yet one of Herzog's great gifts as a filmmaker is that he engenders trust in his viewers; in his hands, you can count on much more than melancholy.
For lighter fare this week, try two special shows coming to area screens. First, Pleasant Street brings in the John Carpenter cult hit They Live for its Friday night midnight movie. The 1988 movie is a strange mix of dark comedy and sci-fi horror in which our upper class is revealed to be an alien race controlling most of the country through subliminal messages and television signals that conceal their true nature. Or, if that doesn't seem quite like the holiday fun you imagined, check out the Tuesday evening screening of The Nutcracker at Cinemark in Hadley. The NYC Ballet presentation of George Balanchine's production gets underway at 6 p.m.
Jack Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.