As Werner Herzog softens from Teutonic maniac into shutterbug German tourist, his documentaries have begun to resemble the adventures of Ernest P. Worrell. There was Werner Goes to Alaska, where he watched a man eaten by bears, then Werner Goes to Antarctica, and its suicidal penguins. With Werner Saves a Cave still lingering in theaters, here, finally, is a movie that can rightly be called Werner Goes to Jail. Actually, befitting his extremism, it's Werner Goes to Death Row.

With the characteristically disconsolate title Into the Abyss, Herzog's prison movie has less of the "travelogue with philosophical footnotes" quality that has marked (and sometimes cheapened) his recent output. It helps that the director, who conducts jailhouse interviews from offscreen, for once cannot possibly be more gloomy or absurd than his subject. He is the second documentary master to tackle true crime this year: Into the Abyss is far bleaker than Errol Morris' Tabloid, but no less nuts.

Herzog profiles Michael Perry, executed by the state of Texas on July 1, 2010, for the killing of three people—including a mother and son—in order to steal a red Chevy Camaro from a home's garage inside a gated community. Meeting with victims' relatives, other convicts and Perry himself (eight days before lethal injection), Herzog elicits bewildering details from staggeringly luckless people. As Perry maintains his innocence against a landfill of evidence, the bucktoothed 28-year-old man recalls how the one opportunity afforded him in his teen years, an Outward Bound canoe trip to the Everglades, culminated (à la Aguirre) in an attack by monkeys.

Herzog’s penchant for addressing bizarre concerns has often felt like willful eccentricity. Here he taps into reservoirs of emotion. “Please describe an encounter with a squirrel,” he asks a death-house chaplain. The preacher, who has previously maintained decorous professionalism, breaks into tears thinking about how he brakes his golf cart to avoid hitting woodland animals but cannot stop an execution. Meanwhile, Herzog remains peerless as a poet of logistics. He notices that the car Perry once wanted has sat in an impound lot for 10 years. While Perry waited to die, a tree grew inside it. PG-13


SEE IT: Into the Abyss opens Wednesday, Nov. 23, at Cinema 21.