Into the Abyss directed by Werner Herzog and The Thin Blue line directed by Errol Morris are two documentaries that tell a story of murder and murderers. But what differs both documentaries from other ones is the cinematic feel to them. Both films conducted staged interviews and used editing techniques in order to convey a message. Into the Abyss is a documentary examining the American justice system concerning the death penalty as Herzog took the case of the murder of Sandra Stotler, fifty-year-old nurse. The film includes crime scene footage, interviews with the families of both the perpetrators and victims, as well as police and prison officers – all of which are edited, presenting a fascinating image of what happened during and after this senseless crime.
The Thin Blue line is a documentary examining the details of the murder of police officer Robert W. Wood in Dallas, attempting to prove the innocence of Randall Dale Adams and the guiltiness of David Harris. The two films talk about murder cases but are directed towards different perspectives of the case. Yet, both directors used filming techniques and cinematic approaches in order to engage the viewer with their message and hopefully influence their opinion.Into the Abyss starts with a scene of a prison chaplain discussing his experience with inmates being put to death.
similar to Errol Morris’s work the interview is staged. The interview takes place in a cemetery with different B-rolls occurring that show the many graves when the chaplain discusses the topic of the cemetery. The two camera set-ups give a seamless shoot. A scene cuts to the reverend crying and lingers for quite a few seconds. A technique that underpins Herzog’s whole approach in the film.
This last shot of the Reverend doesn’t really originate from an indistinguishable piece of the interview from the former soundbite where he seems to be getting choked up – it might have originated from the earliest starting point of the shoot while the team was getting set up, or amid a break in the questions. He appears to be pitiful and contemplative because the clasp is compared with one of him where he’s dismal. It’s basic film editing theory that backpedals to the times of Pavlov’s dog. The bounce cut is utilized for feeling, not out of need (since they unmistakably had two cameras running). This first scene is quite important because it was more than just an interview with the prison chaplain. Herzog’s questions were chosen carefully to set the topic for the entire documentary and make it clear that this isn’t just a documentary about murder but it’s examining the death penalty in the united states. Throughout the film, you notice that it does not really focus on the details of the crime but on the morality in the American justice system.The film included some crime scene footage that could have almost been shot by Herzog himself: lingering shots of unbaked cookie dough that was ready for the oven when the first murder took place, a discarded soft toy and blood-splattered walls.
This way Herzog is also bringing attention to the brutality of the crime not to show himself senseless of it as he was aware that the viewers do know his intent from the beginning of the film. Herzog was trying to prove in a way that he does understand how horrid the crime was but while also criticising the judicial process that followed. Another example of Herzog including more intimate account is the way he conducted the interviews with some of the family members of the victims where he asked fair but sensitive questions that showcased their emotions. Yet, Herzog also conducts interviews with people who knew the convicted murderers as they talked about them and their personalities and encounters with them.
At the end of the documentary Herzog takes to interview Melissa Burkett the wife of Jason Burkett where she shows him a picture of her expected child. The editing of this interview was quite interesting as we were cut to it right after an interview with Jason talking about his love for his wife and the desire to bear children with her. This way Herzog was subtly trying to make the viewers sympathise with the perpetrators and show them the human side of them. Another way where Herzog tried to form a sympathising opinion from the viewers was the footage he took of the execution room. Lingering on shots of the gurney and the straps.
Herzog was quite clear about where he stands and what his opinions are in the film. For example, in an interview with Michael Perry one of the perpetrators, the interview was conducted only eight days before his execution. “You know, I’m a Christian, so I believe paradise awaits” Perry says, as the camera holds steady on his face, until Herzog who is behind the camera rather than present replies: “Destiny, in a way, has dealt you a very bad deck of cards. It does not exonerate you and when I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you, but I respect you and you are a human being and I think human beings should not be executed.” This scene showcases how this documentary is a cultural and philosophical meditation, less interested in facts and answers than in the sorts of questions that shape experience.
In contrast, Morris focused on the details in the Thin Blue Line, in fact the entire film is set on a technique of adding little details to the re-enactment of the scenes that are overly dramatized with little audio or script. as he delivers more evidence from the interview. At the beginning of the murder scene he gives little details and that is to allow the viewer to imagine the different possible ways the murder could have occurred. But as Morris conducts more interviews those crime scenes are repeated multiple times but always with an added element making the story clearer. This way he shares with his viewers his own interpretive process in order to kick start the same process in their minds. Some scenes are constantly re-enacted throughout the entire documentary for example, the gun coming out of the window, establishing the angle of fire. The second officer shooting from behind as the car drives off, later bringing into dispute how good her view of the driver was. And The milkshake that the murdered officer drops, bringing to light the angle he fell after being shot.
Morris also focused on the emotions in the interviews he conducted and on the body language using also a technique that Herzog used where the camera lingers on the person interviewed at the end to give more emotion. Morris’s intent for the documentary was not to examine the death penalty like Herzog did nor to talk about a murder case in general. Rather, Morris was re-examining the trial and conviction of a man named Randall Dale Adams for the murder of police officer Robert W. Wood in Dallas. Morris did not only intend to showcase the innocence of Adams but to identify the real killer –David Harris. And so, Morris did not only interview the convicted murderer Adams but also different key witnesses for the prosecution. Morris wanted to make the people both accurately believe the innocence of Adams and to empathise with him and bring attention to the injustice of the conviction. the way Morris conducts the interviews and the cinematic pieces he worked on for this film were crucial and very well detailed.
The film is a documentary nonetheless and so one would imagine that there is little to adding things that would change the viewer’s opinion without being wrongly biased. But Morris relied on editing to influence and form the viewer’s opinion. for example, during an interview, Adams was explaining how when he was first arrested he was held in a room at gunpoint by a police officer who threatened to kill him if he did not sign the confession. Immediately after, we cut to the same police officer discussing his interaction with Adams insisting that what happened between them was a “friendly conversation”.
If the clips were reversed and we had seen the interview of the police officer first then so the credibility would have been reversed, making it seem as if the police officer was being truthful and then we cut into Adams fabricating the truth. This small but clever edit changed the entire dynamics of the characters in a subtle way where Morris can reinforce his argument without the viewer noticing the biases. Moriss was successful in creating a documentary that not only provides facts and evidence but do so in a manner that engages with the viewers directly and influences their opinions. Due to the film’s convincing presentation of facts and opinions and further lobbying by Morris, Adams was eventually released.The Thin Blue Line and Into the Abyss seem like two different documentaries as one re-examines the truth behind a death crime and exonerates an innocent man on a death row, and the other examines the American justice system concerning death rows giving little details about the crime itself.
Both films used similar techniques in an attempt to influence and form rally opinion.