Love and Death
"Reality? You mean this is the real world?" a character croaks at the beginning of Errol Morris's Vernon, Florida, his 1981 study of front-stoop bullshitters and crackpot philosophers in a jerkwater swamp town. This question of the nature of reality is one that Morris has returned to again and again in his work--a series of stylish and highly eccentric films that tackle epistemology and obsession with all the breakneck zeal of classic Warner Bros. cartoons. (Befitting that energy, the Walker Art Center is screening five of Morris's films in a mere three days--through Friday--as part of "A Brief History of Errol Morris.")
Morris is apparently wired like a border collie. He has always had an almost unbelievable divining rod for characters, and a gift--equal parts that of psychiatrist and private investigator (a job he worked at for a time)--for interrogating obsession. His films are triumphs of listening; you virtually never hear Morris's voice in his movies, and his subjects speak with uncanny ease and volubility, directly addressing the camera. His Interrotron--an invention that, through the use of two-way mirrors, projects his face directly in front of the camera's lens--provides his subjects with the illusion of face-to-face conversation, personalizing the encounter at the same time that the presence and attention of the camera panders to the subject's ego.
Coupled with Morris's skills as a collaborator (as opposed to a mere inquisitor), the Interrotron functions as both harbor and confessional booth, inspiring astonishing monologues and a sort of condensed character development that's missing from most documentaries. But Morris doesn't consider his films documentaries; indeed, with his use of stylish reenactments and odd camera angles, and his mix of film stocks and techniques, he has managed to reinvent the form, tailoring the films to his own obsessions. And those obsessions are all over Morris's movies: eccentricity, order, control, the things we believe--often mistakenly--and why. And death. Always death. In Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the hypercaffeinated sad sack who's the ostensible subject of Morris's latest film, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (which has its local premiere screening on Friday at 8:00 p.m.), Morris has seemingly found his perfect antihero: a flawed everyman through whom we can wrestle with the huge questions that have germinated in the director's other films.
"I learned all sorts of strange things as a youngster," Leuchter admits early in Mr. Death. Leuchter is a self-styled "execution technologist," a man with a 40-cup-a-day coffee habit who works at the design and repair of execution equipment. The son of a corrections professional, Leuchter was, from an early age, a prison tagalong, accompanying his father on his rounds and nosing around in the death house of the Massachusetts penitentiary. He eventually received a bachelor's degree in history from Boston University, but he somehow became a self-proclaimed engineer, as well as creating a business consulting with prisons around the nation on the building and maintenance of what he calls, without a trace of irony, "humane" execution systems.
Morris seldom concerns himself with backstory in his films, and in Mr. Death the question of how exactly Leuchter made the transition from a man with a history degree to "the Florence Nightingale of Death Row" remains a mystery. Like plenty of other Morris characters, however, Leuchter is an awkward-looking fellow with a gift for gab, and is clearly right at home with the Interrotron. "The human body is not easy to destroy," he admits, before presenting a horrifying and entertaining (that combination is an occasionally uncomfortable Morris trademark) disquisition on botched executions and all the things that can go wrong with death technology. His own custom-built electric chair would feature modular electrocution, so there would be "no excessive cooking" of the tissue, as well as instant-release straps and a drip pan to contain bodily fluids and "highly conductive urine." He envisions a lethal-injection chamber that would be state-of-the-art, designed for maximum comfort for the executee--something like a dentist's office, he imagines, complete with a comfy reclining chair, easy-listening music, and relaxing pictures on the wall.
Morris films Leuchter as he tests a gallows, fiddles around with an electric chair in his front yard, and monkeys with various apparatus designed to extinguish human life with an apparent minimum of suffering. In one particularly striking scene, a grinning, clearly gaga Leuchter allows himself to be strapped into an electric chair. We also meet the Dunkin' Donuts waitress who would become, briefly, Leuchter's wife. "He'd come in on his way to the gun club," she deadpans in an exhausted voiceover. "He taught me how to shoot." Theirs was clearly no starry-eyed courtship, however. "He was having problems at home with his mother," she says. "She wasn't talking to him, so we got married."
Morris does nothing to establish Leuchter's credentials, and includes no testimony from prison officials or anyone else who might address the quality of his work or the matter of his qualifications. It seems, in fact, that Leuchter has established himself as an expert in execution technology simply by virtue of having the field almost to himself; many potential competitors, he admits, have ethical reservations about the work. In essence, he became an expert simply by pretending to be one. "I built helmets for electric chairs, so now I could build lethal injection machines," he says. "I now build lethal injection machines, so now I'm competent to build a gallows. And since I'm building gallows, I'm also competent to work on gas chambers, because I've done all the other three." Even Leuchter seems bemused and astonished by this crazy logic.
In the early scenes of Mr. Death, Leuchter comes across as little more than an amiable small-fry eccentric, albeit one with what Morris calls "an unwholesome obsession with executions." Midway through the film, however, Leuchter's story turns a dangerous corner. In 1988 Ernst Zundel, a German neo-Nazi and publisher of tracts (including "The Hitler We Loved, and Why" and "Did Six Million Really Die?"), was on trial in Canada on charges of publishing materials deemed deliberately false, and he commissioned Leuchter to travel to Auschwitz to take samples from the crematoria to be tested for the presence of cyanide. Zundel, determined that "we will not go down in history as being a nation of genocidal maniacs," intended to prove that the Holocaust never happened, and Leuchter, he says, "was our only hope."
Clearly, poor Fred Leuchter was a man who yearned to be someone's only hope, and he dutifully set off for Poland on the field trip of his life, convinced that he was "the only expert in the world" who could determine what had really happened at Auschwitz. Accompanied by a draftsman, a translator (Leuchter spoke no German), a cinematographer, and his wife (who spent much of the trip--her honeymoon, in essence--sitting in the car reading mystery novels and working crossword puzzles), Leuchter hiked around in Auschwitz and Birkenau, investigating the crematoria and illegally chiseling brick and mortar samples from the walls and floor to be smuggled back to the United States and tested for traces of poison gas. The footage of Leuchter marching around in Auschwitz with his hammer and chisel, bundled up like a Boy Scout, is painful and appalling.
"Leuchter is a victim of the myth of Sherlock Holmes," Auschwitz historian Robert Jan Van Pelt observes at one point--but Leuchter's point of reference seemingly owes more to the Hardy Boys or Encyclopedia Brown; he appears positively giddy with the adventure, intoxicated by his imagined expertise. "I got a beautiful piece of roof," he says at one point, grinning into the camera and shoving samples into plastic bags. It is often difficult to tell if what we're seeing is the footage of Leuchter's original trip to Poland, or the product of Morris's own later trip, when the director staged reenactments at the death camps using actors, including a man wearing the very clothing that Leuchter--tragically complicit and gullible--had worn and subsequently loaned to the film crew. Morris is on slippery ground here; if Leuchter's trip represented desecration, what are we to think of the filmmaker's labored re-creations, his own bizarre field trip to Auschwitz?
Upon Leuchter's return from Auschwitz, his samples were submitted for chemical analysis to the Alpha Analytic Laboratories, and the results, Leuchter would claim, showed no significant traces of cyanide, thus "proving" that poison gas was not used at Auschwitz. These results--coupled with Leuchter's "best engineering opinion," based on the examination of the ruins, that the crematoria could not have been used as gas chambers--were compiled in "The Leuchter Report," a document that has become a cornerstone of the Holocaust denial movement. There are now reportedly millions of copies of the report in print, translated into dozens of languages, and widely disseminated as gospel on the Internet.
Never mind that James Roth, the man who did the analysis at Alpha Analytic (ignorant of the origins of the samples or the purpose of the tests), avers in Mr. Death that the correct tests were not performed and "the results have no meaning." Never mind that Leuchter didn't bother to visit the archives at Auschwitz, where he could have examined documents, blueprints, designs, and Nazi correspondence, all related to the crematoria's uses as a gas chamber. Never mind the records of history or the memories of survivors--Fred Leuchter concluded that the Holocaust never happened, and he was instantly embraced as a hero by the Holocaust denial movement. "Why didn't they just shoot them?" Leuchter wonders. "Why didn't they just blow them up? It just doesn't make sense."
Of course, even the most pathetic tragic heroes must pay for their hubris in the end, and Fred Leuchter certainly pays. It's interesting that Morris's film feels like a funeral for a fool, and yet Mr. Death is still out there somewhere. He lost a gallows contract initially, then the wardens stopped calling altogether. His business failed, he lost his house, and his marriage fell apart. He eventually resorted to trying to sell half a lethal injection machine--one last contract that went bust--through a classified ad. In the end, he is even reduced to being evicted from motel rooms, and Morris shows him, finally, walking alone along a highway. "It's pretty tough when you're out in the middle of nowhere by yourself," he says.
It seems clear that Morris would like us to feel some level of empathy for Fred Leuchter, to see something of our own propensity for self-deception in his folly--but it's a stretch. He's a fascinating character, yet probably not as complicated as Morris might wish us to believe. "Holocaust denial is a story about vanity," Robert Jan Van Pelt says. "It is a way to get in the limelight, to be noticed--to be someone--maybe to be loved." That said, it's unlikely that anybody or anything ever loved Fred Leuchter in quite the way, or quite as much, as he was loved by Errol Morris's Interrotron.
Errol Morris will introduce a screening of Mr. Death on Friday at 8:00 p.m. at Walker Art Center. The Walker's "A Brief History of Errol Morris" also includes double features of Morris's films on Wednesday (Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida) and Thursday (The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time), both beginning at 7:00 p.m.; (612) 375-7622.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.