Werner Herzog leads USF students on a journey ‘Into the Abyss’

Veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog began his afternoon in USF’s Interdisciplinary Sciences building this past Saturday on a light note, telling the audience that had exceeded the room’s 300 person-limit that “I think there was misinformation, this is not the game for Miami against Tampa – that’s at the stadium downtown.”

Herzog, who’s directed such acclaimed films as “Fitzcarraldo” and “Grizzly Man,” was the focus of “An Afternoon With Werner Herzog.” The event allowed USF students and Tampa cineastes alike to indulge in an evening celebrating this much-lauded director’s work.

Herzog showed his new documentary “Into the Abyss,” which only just opened in select cities across the United States on Nov. 11. Herzog claimed he had four hours of footage to show for another project if the “pretty lousy DVD” of the documentary didn’t play correctly.

Herzog appeared adamant about showing his most recent project, claiming “Into the Abyss” was an “important film, but not an issue film.” After a few minor technical difficulties, which prompted Herzog to ask audience members if they knew how to work a DVD player, the film began.

The documentary chronicles the 2001 murder case of a Texas woman at the hands of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were subsequently sentenced to death row and life in prison, respectively. Told through a series of interviews by those affected by the slaying, as well as Perry and Burkett themselves, the film is an unrelenting look at just why people, and even the state, feel motivated to kill.

Herzog has been particularly focused on this subject recently, with the previously mentioned four films he had on hand also focusing on criminals on death row and set to air on television sometime next year.

“I’d like to make a note in advance that my position on capital punishment is that I am not an advocate, but these films are not against capital punishment,” he said. “I don’t have an argument against capital punishment, I only have a story.”

The German-born Herzog, whose family fled the country while under Adolf Hitler’s reign, elaborated on why he felt the need to tell this story and his own personal connection to the matter.

“At the time of the Nazis, we had an excessive use of capital punishment in Germany, and you could’ve been executed for cracking a joke on Hitler,” he said. “If you were retarded or anything, you would be executed in a program of euthanasia, and on top of that, there was the genocide of six million people.”

Herzog closed his preface on the film with one final thought.

“So, end of story, I have no argument, but I do not believe in a position where a state should be allowed to kill off anybody for any reason,” Herzog said. “However, I am a guest in your country, and my position is I respectively disagree with capital punishment and the practice of it.”

Following the screening of “Into the Abyss,” Herzog held a question and answer session, where he covered many questions regarding “Into the Abyss” as well as his personal oeuvre.

Most illuminating of the maverick director’s personality was his metaphorical sayings and allegories he employed to describe his filmmaking process. When asked how he chooses his next film in a career that has seen him helm more than 62 films in various genres, Herzog said he approaches the ones “that come at me most ferociously,” then elaborated in a far more cryptic manner.

“If you wake up in the night and there are burglars in your kitchen, there are a bunch of them and you come down, one starts swinging at you with a knife, you better deal with that one first,” he said.

Next for Herzog are the four death row inmate documentaries, one of which will feature Floridian convict James Barnes, and starring in the Hollywood thriller “One Shot” with Tom Cruise. Herzog said he starts shooting that one in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania this week, and he’s excited to play the villain of the film because “on the screen, I can look really dangerous.”

Herzog closed the afternoon by commenting on his own legend, after being asked how he considers the public’s perception of his mystique, to which he initially replied, “Who cares?” Referring to an infamous instance where he forced his crew to push a 300-ton steamboat up a mountain, Herzog left the audience with an indelible message.

“You move a ship over a mountain that’s 360 tons, yes, nobody’s ever done that before, so there’s no precedence,” said Herzog. ” So let me set the precedence. I think every young man should try to move a ship over a mountain at least once in their life.”