PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Errol Morris makes disturbing, lyrical, powerful nonfiction films, and he has a lot to say about them. Since his first film, Gates of Heaven (1979), about two pet cemeteries, their founders and their human clients, Morris has assiduously pushed the limits of what documentaries can or should do. While The Thin Blue Line (1988) may be his most famous film (one of the interiewees, David Harris, confesses on tape that he murdered a Dallas policeman, a crime for which another man had been convicted), Morris’s more recent work includes 1992’s A Brief History of Time (a study of the “black hole” theories of physicist Stephen Hawking) and 1997’s Fast Cheap and Out of Control (which linked four seemingly unrelated life stories into a seeming frenzy of thematic coherence).
Morris is currently talking about his latest nonfiction film, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., which considers the strange career of Fred Leuchter. The film allows Leuchter to tell his story how his work as what Morris calls “an electric chair repairman” led to a commission to conduct a forensic investigation of samples taken from Auschwitz, which in turn led him to become a rather notorious Holocaust denier while framing him with interviews with supporters (Holocaust revisionists Ernst Zundel and David Irving) and detractors (Holocaust historian Robert Jan Van Pelt and scientist James Roth), as well as his estranged wife Caroline, who never appears on screen, but whose comments are remarkably revealing.
Errol Morris and I met recently when he visited Washington DC, to screen and discuss the film with an audience at the National Gallery.Cynthia Fuchs:
I’m assuming that Fred Leuchter has seen the film.Errol Morris:
Yes, and he liked it. Given that the movie is in part about Fred Leuchter’s inability to quite see what he’s doing, to see the world as it were, is it so surprising that he would see the film in his own way? No, it’s not.CF:
It does seem, from what we see in the film, that what he’s trying most to do is make “sense,” of something that rattles him, and to make sense of his own life.EM:
It’s a charitable interpretation of him, but I think there is certainly an element of that. He is trying to understand something, but he really has no tools to understand what he’s dealing with. It’s one of the many ironies of the movie that he can start off chastising the various prison wardens for hiring him at all. He has this line, given that I can make an electric chair doesn’t mean that I can make a gas chamber, doesn’t mean that I can make a lethal injection system, and so on and so forth. And by the time he gets to Auschwitz, where he really knows nothing, in his own mind he’s become this infallible expert. I agree with him in one very very small way, the Holocaust doesn’t make sense. It is the central mystery of the twentieth century, but it’s not a mystery about whether it happened. The evidence is overwhelming. As is the evidence for the use of poison gas at Auschwitz. The mystery is how it could have happened, why did people do this to other people, what were they thinking, how did they conceive of themselves in this?CF:
How did you decide to use Caroline in the film? Of the many contexts that you set up for him in the film, she’s one of the more personal ones.EM:
Well, she didn’t want to be photographed. But I liked the interview with her. The whole idea of the honeymoon in Auschwitz is irresistible. It is just on the surface, such an amazingly crazy story. One question from the audience following a screening of the film, was, did I have this character in mind before I met Fred Leuchter? And I said, oh that’s absolutely right, I had this idea for this electric chair repairman who spends his honeymoon in Auschwitz and becomes a Holocaust denier, and then I found Fred. You couldn’t possibly make Fred up. It is just too bizarre.CF:
How do you decide when to insert your voice in your films?EM:
I started out not including my voice at all, and then in Thin Blue Line, there was the camera failure in the last interview with David Harris. And then I put it in Fast Cheap as a kind of stylistic thing, to remind people that I was out there, that there was this guy, hidden in the wings. I like the question in Fast Cheap, “Do you miss Clyde Beatty?”, because in the end it becomes about loss, about the world changing in ways that we can’t control or predict, this feeling of being trapped in time, and so I thought that the question underlined those themes. In Mr. Death, I like the line because it is the one explicit confrontation with Fred. “Fred, do you ever think you might be wrong?” I also think that it’s a question a lot of people want to ask, so I’m a surrogate audience member. And his answer is utterly amazing: he says, “I’m long since past that.”CF:
Like it’s a phase you go through.EM:
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely correct, and a good way of putting it. Because he goes on to say, “I made a decision that I wasn’t wrong.” You made a decision? But what if you were wrong? Is this about making a decision? I’m sorry, you are wrong, your decision notwithstanding.CF:
He sees history-making as decision-making.EM:
Yeah. “We decided it was X or Y or Z,” as if this kind of thing was adjudicated by decision-making. You know there’s this postmodern nonsense, that truth is subjective. I beg to differ. You know, I heard Rashomon used so many times in reference to The Thin Blue Line that I felt compelled to reread the story, and to look at the Kurosawa movie again, wondering, had I missed something? And this is what I think Roshomon is really about: there’s a big difference in saying that truth is subjective and saying that there is a truth, but we all have some vested interest in avoiding it. In The Thin Blue Line, there’s a fact of the matter: it’s not up for grabs who shot the cop. Someone shot the cop, someone pulled a gun from underneath the seat, pulled the trigger, and shot that Dallas police officer. There’s a fact of the matter about whether poison gas was used at Auschwitz, it’s not a matter for subjective discussion.CF:
But Leuchter’s not seeing it as subjective. He thinks he’s got facts.EM:
Which goes to the question of investments in storytelling.EM:
Yes, and the stuff I do is about storytelling, and people’s attempts to narrate stories about themselves. I think sometimes that life is about how to effectively pose as ourselves, how best to tell our story, not just to other people but to ourselves as well. What’s remarkable for me about Fred is that his story is like the Golden Book version of Fred, Fred as Hero, as Explorer, as Investigator, Fred as Compassionate Do-Gooder. He could be Florence Nightingale: there’s Fred disturbed by the possibility of botched executions or malfunctioning equipment, and he’s thinking, “I know, I’ll fix it, I’ll make it work, I’ll make it painless.” Fred as Champion of the Underdog. Poor Ernst Zundel, on trial for major felony in Canada. Who but Fred could help this man? It’s one of the things I truly love about the story, this radical disjunction between Fred’s image of self and what he’s doing. The height of it is at Crematorium 2, at Auschwitz. For Robert Jan Van Pelt, it’s the nadir of Western Civilization, it’s as bad as it gets, the dark epicenter. For Fred, “Mystery on Skull Mountain.” He could be in a Hardy Boys mystery.CF:
Can you tell me about the Interrotron?EM:
Well, the Interrotron—which we first used with the Leuchter film has now been superseded by the Megatron. The Interrotron is pretty amazing. No one else uses it, but I don’t think anyone else knows how to use it. It obviously breaks with a certain idea of how you’re supposed to film an interview. It’s a break with the whole verite idea of filmmaking, which has at its heart the idea that you are observing something, not participating. But interviews imply a certain kind of participation. And there are all kinds of interviews, just like there are all kinds of human relationships, because what is an interview but a human relationship in some oddball, controlled, if you like, laboratory setting. But the way in which interviews are put on film or videotape, is, according to this verite idea, that you’re standing off in this third place watching two people talking. Even when it’s over the shoulder stuff, that is still the case, though the over the shoulder idea tries to mimic the exchange between one person and another. The Interrotron makes the viewer one with the camera. Everyone knows that eye contact is important. It’s wired into our brains, probably has its origins in very primitive kinds of things, but without any doubt, it has dramatic value. In all these cases, where the camera is observing, the possibility of eye contact is lost. The Interrotron changes that: we’re both looking at each other’s live video images and at the same time looking directly into the lens of the camera. And I think it’s something almost as amazing as a telephone. You hear this shtick, that technology and intimacy somehow work at cross purposes, and I actually think it’s quite different. I think technology makes possible a different kind of intimacy.CF:
Your documentaries have foregrounded the constructedness of intimacy. Does the Interrotron, in its emphasis on this constructed eye contact, reestablish a false intimacy?EM:
I’m not completely clear what it does. We wondered early on, would interview subjects be happy talking to a video version of me, the Virtual Errol. And the answer was yes, they were perfectly happy, and it worked as well as I could have imagined. And my production designer said, well, it allows people to do what they do best, which is watch television. I said yeah, but it goes even a step further, it provides a compassionate tv, the television set who wants to know more about you. I was doing interviews for this series I’m doing for Bravo, First Person which is some of the best stuff I’ve done by the way, eleven interviews with people ranging from Temple Grandin, autistic designer of humane animal slaughterhouses, and Clyde Roper, squid hunter, to Gary Greenberg, penpal of the Unibomber, and Joan Daugherty, crime scene cleaner with the new apparatus, the Megatron. There are twenty cameras with the Megatron, they’re everywhere, one behind me and me looking at the virtual interviewee and another monitor next to me. I was looking at that other monitor, when suddenly I realized, I’m talking to the tv, like some kind of weird Turing Test.CF:
History might be understood as a constant process of revision, as new information becomes available. Do you feel like you ever come to a point where there’s no more revision possible, a kind of wall for someone’s story?EM:
You can say that there’s objective truth, but you can also, at the same time, say that there are difficulties in finding out that truth. It’s not a given, not necessarily handed over to you like a meal on a plate. It’s a quest. We all know that scientific theories represent an approximation. We are actually searching for the world, trying to lay hands on the world. After all, the brain is a virtual reality generator: what we see out there is being processed neurologically, and we’re trying to reach out from that blob of protoplasm to find out what is there. So I like to think of truth as a pursuit. The idea of someone saying, “You can’t examine this, you can’t ask questions about this, that all avenues of inquiry are over,” I find that repulsive. For me there is no sacred cow so sacred that it can’t be examined. Having said all of that, the Holocaust deniers throw out evidence, but what they don’t provide is an alternative story that makes sense. And if you can come up with a story that makes sense to enough people for a long enough time, god bless. And the deniers have done no such thing.CF:
So history is consensus?EM:
It is consensus, but like in science, there is a factual element as well. Fred had this radical idea, that you could subject history to a simple chemistry experiment, it’s the Gilbert Chemistry Set version of history. One of the reasons why it’s so pernicious in its effect, is that people want to know, because it’s disarmingly simple. He went over and took the samples illegally and surreptitiously then takes them to a reputable lab in the U.S. and they can’t find trace cyanide, and the question is, why not? In fact, there are simple answers why not. They did the tests wrong, the conclusions were unwarranted.CF:
But his investment is not about the Holocaust per se. What is his investment?EM:
I think it’s personal vanity, the little boy dream of being right no matter what, being the big shot, having the important role on some big stage, and what bigger stage is there than the history of the world? In some crazy way, being an arbiter of life and earth, being god.CF:
What do you make of the reality programming today?EM:
I’ve been accused of being the creator of this mess. But I don’t think my stuff is like that, I don’t think I do reenactments per se. I make images that are not about the world, they’re about fantasy, they take you inward, not outward. In The Thin Blue Line, all those reenactments are reenactments of lies, they take you into the mystery. Likewise in the Leuchter story: the arrow points inwards. These images are not illustrations of things that happen out there, they’re illustrations of things that happen in there.
Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/morris-errol/