Dissecting 'Mr. Death': Errol Morris Conducts an Autopsy on His Latest Film
Documentary filmmakers, in their attempt to grab and hold viewer attention in a competitive environment, sometimes resort to sensationalizing their topic. The ocean floor! Snowboarding! Heart bypass operations! Errol Morris does it another way.
Morris' projects get star billing at film festivals, and he is regularly included in "best filmmaker" categories. In fact, Morris was inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by members outraged at the institution's failure to honor his work.
Like the sensationalists, Morris reveals to us the weird, the bizarre, the horrifying and the arcane as all-too-human phenomena. But he does this without moving in with his subjects for years at a time, or cannily entrapping them with remarkable tools of implacability or a philosophical quest for meaning. Instead, he uses tenacity, impassivity, ever-precise logic and a strong stomach to get people to talk to him until they tell him something.
Morris has filmed people explaining why they give their pets lavish burials in Gates of Heaven (1978), live in a swamp in Vernon, Florida (1981), invent testimony that condemns an innocent man to death in The Thin Blue Line (1988), parse out secrets of the universe in A Brief History of Time (1992), or get into circus rings with dangerous large animals in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997). In doing so, they also reveal their inner selves.
How has he portrayed the architecture and interior decoration of these personal universes? One of his tools in the process has been the "Interrotron," a set of two cameras rigged for video image the way TV cameras are rigged for text with Teleprompters. This allows his subjects to speak to an image of him—a once-removed, live picture of their interviewer—and talk into the camera's lens at the same time.
The Interrotron has made for some alarming pictures. Morris has repeatedly charted interior logic that might be merely quaint and odd, a sort of America's Funniest Mental Interiors, except for the fact that they have enormous real life implications and consequences. The most dramatic case was The Thin Blue Line, in which Morris, who worked for years as an investigator of financial crime and corruption, untangled a miscarriage of justice and saved a man's life. Randall Adams' trial was reopened, with Morris' film as evidence, and he went free.
"He later tried to sue me," Morris recalled to an audience at Doubletake Documentary Film Festival last year, where he was given a life achievement award. "I was very depressed about it for some time, but then my wife told me, 'Just because he's innocent doesn't mean he can't be an asshole."'
Morris' latest film, Mr. Death, which made a substantial splash at the Toronto International Film Festival in September makes you wonder what kind of trouble Morris will be getting up to next. Mr. Death draws a portrait of Fred Leuchter, a mousey engineer who had carved out a career for himself inspecting and revising execution equipment. Leuchter explains this process with a technical precision and love of problem solving that makes him seem like a slightly morbid but still recognizable model subscriber to Popular Mechanics magazine. But Leuchter is not just a highly specialized repairman. He became a leading figure among Holocaust deniers when he was hired to sneak into the ruins of Auschwitz and assess whether its gas chambers could have been operational. He reported that they could not have been used for mass execution, and his conclusion has become a staple of deniers' arguments.
With his trademark implacability, Morris investigates the process of Leuchter's gas chamber study. On the way, he uncovers information that not only invalidates the study, but also explains how Leuchter himself could be so deluded. Morris interviews an expert on the Holocaust, who explains how much had changed at the site before Leuchter got there. For instance, villagers from miles around had raided the bricks from the site to reconstruct their own houses and barns. (Morris promptly gives us images of Polish rural life that in any other context would be idyllic.) He also interviews the head of the lab to which Leuchter had sent his samples to be tested for the death gas, who explains that the lab had been asked to test pulverized rock. But to get useful results, the lab would have had to sample only the intact surface of the walls. The lab results were useless.
As usual in a Morris film, the facts are only the beginning. Disproving the Holocaust denier is only a stop on the road to insight. The problem that Morris, who also studied philosophy in college, is concerned with is how Leuchter could become the doyen of the world's moral pariahs. (The engineer is also job less, divorced and homeless.)
"I want the film to be seen in Germany, because it is a story about the Holocaust, and it could receive a lot of discussion and controversy there," Morris said to International Documentary in Toronto. "But I didn't make it to prove that the Holocaust happened. I don't need to do that. I don't need to prove the sky is blue, either. I made it to explore the problem of Fred Leuchter. "I don't think that Fred is such a peculiar character that he's not one of us," Morris continues. "Everyone has a tendency to see the world with blinders on. He's very American, in the sense that he's a self-made man. He's gadget-obsessed—he likes to think of himself as an Edison-like figure."
It would be easy to ridicule Fred Leuchter. He is self-deluded and silly, and he has also done real harm. Mr. Death seizes upon our eagerness to point fingers, but also invites us to examine more closely the problem of Leuchter. We come to grasp how Leuchter reasons, excluding all but the variables he can juggle. We meet his acquaintances and his ex-wife. We can bump up against the narrow confines of his consciousness and his working world. It takes no leap of imagination, then, to see how welcome the adulation of the Holocaust deniers will be to this lonely, self-taught engineer.
In the end, Fred Leuchter emerges as pathetic and harmful, and also one of us. Morris has managed to place us in the same world without forcing us to pity him or fail to condemn the evil to which he has contributed. As with the other people he has profiled over the years, Morris has taken us beyond the freak show and asked us to consider the amazing and alarming qualities of human consciousness—and their implications.
To create this portrait, Morris uses the interview, documents and his famed penchant for re-enactment. That arch, slow motion style of re-enactment has now proliferated in documentary filmmaking, something he notes without interest. "It's used a lot for illustration," he points out. "That's not what I do it for. For me, it's a way of taking you into someone's world. I re-enact Fred taking samples at Auschwitz in order to take you into the absurd."
Morris is pleased that Mr. Death, like his other documentaries, is getting theatrical treatment. "My films have been shot very carefully. I'd like them to be seen with audiences in theaters. So far, they all have." He has also received unstinting critical praise from the outset of his career, which has helped to win him an elite filmgoing audience. He'd like even more. "I want a bigger audience. I want my films to be seen as movies, plain and simple. The job of making a movie, if you're doing a job well, is of creating a world. I want to take a lot of people there."
Pat Aufderheide is a professor in the School of Communication at American University, in Washington, D.C.