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Jewish Journal

Errol Morris/Mr. Death

by Naomi Pfefferman

December 23, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Errol Morris, the pre-eminent documentarian of the bizarre, ambled onstage at the Bing Theater recently, looking scruffy. He was wearing a rumpled blue windbreaker, wrinkled slacks and a wicked smile.

It was appropriate posturing for a director whose films are often wickedly ironic: He has profiled, in turn, people who have hacked off their own limbs for the insurance money; pet cemetery owners; an autistic woman who designs slaughterhouses.

A crowded audience packed the Bing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this month to see Morris introduce his latest, acclaimed documentary, which also combines the grotesque with the absurd. "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.," depicts a self-proclaimed execution expert turned Holocaust denier; a geeky, middle-aged man who speaks cheerfully of "humane" executions or chiseling off samples of the crematoria at Auschwitz.

It's a peculiarly Errol Morris brand of Holocaust film, one that has already earned rave reviews but may not be for mainstream consumption, the filmmaker concedes. "For years, no one wanted to pay me to turn this into a movie," he told the LACMA audience just before the screening, with another wicked smile, "for reasons that will become obvious."

During a telephone interview from his office in Cambridge, MA, Morris was more serious and thoughtful. He said he has long wanted to make a Holocaust film, something different from the others. He has been preoccupied with the Shoah since learning of the death of his relatives in the camps; in fact, the macabre has been a recurring theme in his films, in part because of his family's tragic history, in part because death has been all too frequent in his life.

His father, a physician, died when Morris was 2; his brother died at the age of 40. Perhaps Morris was drawn to Leuchter, because the "execution expert" was, in his own way, trying to outwit death.

The director actually "discovered" Leuchter in 1990, when the "Florence Nightingale of death row" was featured in the Atlantic Monthly and in a front page article on capitol punishment in The New York Times. The story described Leuchter's work on gas chambers and gallows but buried his Holocaust denial far down in the piece, "as if the two didn't mix, like milk and meat in a kosher kitchen," Morris, now 51, recalls.

The director went on to learn that Leuchter had traveled to Auschwitz in 1988 at the request of a notorious neo-Nazi, to "test" the crematoria for poison gas residue. Leuchter's sloppy science found none, and his ensuing "Leuchter Report" became the Bible of the neo-Nazi movement. It also made him a pariah with prison wardens around the country, who canceled their orders for electric chairs and lethal injection machines. Leuchter subsequently lost his business, his money, his marriage and went into hiding. Morris, in fact, had to hire a private detective to track him down for an interview.

From the beginning, the director agonized over how to present Leuchter: He did not want to legitimize a Holocaust denier. Rather, he hoped that Fred would help him explore the mystery of the Holocaust -- not whether it happened but how it could have happened. For Morris, vain, clueless Leuchter sheds some light on the mystery: He is, after all, a man who performs evil deeds but perceives himself as a hero, a humanitarian.

The filmmaker had to rework the documentary, however, after a disturbing screening at Harvard University more than a year ago. The original version included only a lengthy interview with Leuchter; after the screening, some of the students said they believed Fred's theory, while others regarded Morris "as a Nazi, albeit a Jewish Nazi."

The shaken director realized he had to add a number of interviews to the film to refute "The Leuchter Report." Like "The Thin Blue Line," in which Morris solved a murder mystery to save a man from death row, "Mr. Death" presents several investigative coups. With Robert Jan van Pelt, co-author of "Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present," Morris traveled to the Auschwitz-Birkenau to discover a rare, explicit reference to the gas chambers in Nazi documents. He interviewed the Cornell-educated chemist who tested Leuchter's crematoria chiselings, who proves Leuchter's theory all wrong. He also found hatches to the gas chambers moldering in an abandoned Auschwitz storage room, but elected to leave those out of the film. "There is already overwhelming evidence about what happened at the death camps," he explains. "I don't need to 'prove the world is round.'"

Even so, Morris acknowledges that not everyone will approve of his movie. There have been one or two complaints at every screening, he says, including the Polish non-Jew at LACMA who angrily admonished Morris and the audience for "laughing" at the Holocaust. Several people loudly called out to her that they were not laughing at the Shoah, but only at Fred.

Then there was Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who feared that viewers of "Mr. Death" might get the wrong idea about Leuchter. "Errol Morris portrays him as a simple, naive, even foolish man who was perhaps duped into being a tool of the Holocaust revisionists," Breitbart says. "But in fact, Leuchter is intensely involved with the Holocaust deniers and has a real Holocaust denial agenda."

The Center's Museum of Tolerance passed on a chance to screen "Mr. Death," in part, because of Breitbart's critique; Morris bristled at the news. "The charge is that I provide a relatively benign Fred Leuchter for public consumption, but that's just wrong," he said, adding that "Mr. Death" screened at a Holocaust center at Clark University. "I think that what disturbs some people about my movie is that they don't come out hating Fred. They don't see him as Satan. They see him as a human being, if a vain, pathetic, confused human being. Maybe there's a great need to see him as a monster, but to me, that's just a mistake. Because then, what have you learned from Fred? You haven't learned a thing."

"Mr. Death" opens Dec. 29 in Los Angeles.

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