11/04/2011 04:05 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2012

How German Is It? Werner Herzog at DOC NYC

Werner Herzog is all over DOC NYC. In this, its second year, his film Into the Abyss was screened opening night on Thursday. The famed German director quipped that all of his films could have this title. Indeed, last year his Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3D undersea archeological expedition, kicked off the inaugural DOC NYC. The high grossing documentary might qualify caves, massive bodies of water, get it? -- but for entirely different reasons.

Into the Abyss is singular in its depiction of an America you might recognize from the Paradise Lost films depicting the wrongful imprisonment of the West Memphis 3, an intellectually impoverished America of fast food joints and trailers juxtaposed with home baked cookies in gated communities. Herzog's eye focuses on a 28-year-old death row inmate on the verge of execution in Texas. His guilt in a triple murder is not in question, and yet surrounded by a cast of characters whose life choices seem bizarre, lethal injection becomes an uneasy solution. This deeply disturbing film is for Herzog a platform for a clearheaded anti-death penalty stance. But as he pointed out in a post-screening Q&A, the last thing Americans need is a German-alluding to his country's legacy of Nazi horror-reminding us that putting people to death has moral heft.

Over cocktails Herzog chatted amiably introducing a reporter to his wife, the photographer Lena Herzog who had a recent show at the International Center for Photography. A talk with Herzog might begin with a question about his unique interview strategy. In Into the Abyss, he had 20 minutes to speak to a death row chaplain who at first delivers a predictable professional response to the job he must perform preparing prisoners about to die for their final moments, until a question from Herzog launched him into a story about stopping short on a road allowing squirrels to cross unharmed. Suddenly teary, he makes an extraordinary statement about wishing to step on the brakes, to reverse the law. How did Herzog know what to ask? I don't interview, he said. I make conversation.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.