Combustible Celluloid

A Talk with Errol Morris

Nonfiction Auteur

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Errol Morris Movies on DVD

The documentary filmmaker has always been an integral, if unsung, part of movie history. Thomas Edison's first film was, in essence, a documentary. The Lumiere brothers filmed dozens of simple and daily events. Robert Flaherty was the first to twist documentary and storytelling by building an igloo "set" to show the daily life of Nanook of the North in 1922. Flaherty later turned an assignment film from Standard Oil into his own personal vision with Louisiana Story (1948). Leni Riefenstahl imbued her own artistry upon the tediousness of a Hitler rally in Triumph of the Will (1934) and the Olympic Games in Olympia (1936). Though many other filmmakers throughout the 20th Century have succeeded in making superb films from non-fiction subjects (e.g. Shoah, Hoop Dreams, Crumb), none have really joined the ranks of Flaherty and Riefenstahl until Errol Morris. And Morris has now bypassed them with his new film Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter Jr.

Morris' first film, Gates of Heaven (1978) was so audacious that director Werner Herzog (Augirre, the Wrath of God) bet him that he would eat his own shoe if Morris could finish the film. Morris did, and Herzog ate his shoe at the film's premiere in Berkeley. The event was filmed by Les Blank, another influential documentary filmmaker. Gates of Heaven started out as a movie about a real-life pet cemetery, but slowly evolved into a movie about the family that owns and runs it; their strange behavior and lost dreams. It's a great movie that I saw years ago and have not forgotten. Like that movie, Mr. Death starts as one thing and evolves into something more. It's frightening, revealing, and brilliant. But it covers new territory not even imagined from Gates of Heaven.

Morris honed his filmmaking craft to perfection in the years between with The Thin Red Line (1988), A Brief History of Time (1992), and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997). Mr. Death is the pinnacle of his career. It follows the story of Fred Leuchter Jr., a strange man whose father worked in a prison. Leuchter grew up thinking about the quality of the electric chair and worked to design a new and more humane one. From there, he was hired to work on gas chambers and lethal injection machines. That's fodder enough for an interesting movie, but there's more. Leuchter was hired by neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel, who published a propaganda tract called "Did Six Million Really Die?" and was on trial for it. Leuchter traveled to Auschwitz, stopping only to get married, chipped off rock samples, and tested them for cyanide residue. When he found nothing, he concluded that the Holocaust was indeed a fake. Strangely, Leuchter still believes he did the right thing, even though his business has failed and he is in hiding.

I had the chance to talk with Morris about Leuchter and about documentary filmmaking. Morris looks a bit owlish and talks very slowly, as if aware of being interviewed. After all, he's a man who has conducted many interviews himself. He was also a private detective, the skills from which helped him to track down Leuchter. Morris recently showed Leuchter a rough cut of the film, and Leuchter for the most part was pleased. "He was annoyed by some details here and there," Morris says.

Morris makes his feelings about Leuchter clear. "The whole thing is so deeply absurd. To call it pseudo-science gives it too much credibility. When I see Fred chipping away at [the wall]... We know that the Germans pulled all the hardware out of these buildings and dynamited them in January of 1945. So what you're left with is picked over, exposed to the elements; ground water, rain, wind. We know that the walls were covered with plaster. The plaster's all gone. Then we learn that even if Fred had the real surfaces--the surfaces that were exposed to gas in 1943 and 1944--the way in which the samples were taken invalidated the results. Absurd. It makes it all absolutely ludicrous."

There were rumors that Morris originally wanted to include Leuchter in his four-character Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. But these were completely untrue. "Fast, Cheap has four characters who say a lot of stuff and there's no one there to say whether they're right or wrong. They simply say what they have to say." Morris soon realized that what Leuchter was saying carried a little more weight than his Fast, Cheap characters. "At first, I hoped to put together a movie that just had Fred Leuchter talking, because to me it was obvious that he was wrong and crazy. But what's obvious to one person isn't necessarily obvious to another. And it quickly became clear that making a movie with Fred alone was wrong. Morally wrong, among other things." So Morris included testimony by other parties that put Leuchter's ridiculous theories in proper perspective.

What really interested Morris about Leuchter was the level at which he believed he had done the right thing. "What's so remarkable about this is that Fred sees himself as a good guy, throughout the entire movie; a guy concerned with the welfare of death row inmates, a self-styled Florence Nightingale of death row. He describes himself as a civil libertarian and as a champion of the underdog and the only person who could provide Zundel's defense. It would be remiss for him not to offer his services. He sees himself as a hero."

"We had various tag lines that we played with for the movie. The one that I liked the best, the one that we've been using most recently is 'A Study in Job Satisfaction.' But the other one is, of course, is 'Anybody Can Think They're a Hero.'"

Despite what Morris has achieved with Mr. Death, many people still resist the idea of a documentary that's not entirely observational and subjective. "I have my own theory. I think in many ways, where we imagine the line drawn is wrong. Because it's often drawn just in stylistic terms. I think there's something deeper at work. It's that 'Out of Control' idea. There used to be that joke documentary. There were a whole number of them made for Saturday Night Live. Someone went out and shot some documentary footage. And then they narrated it as if they were directing the action. So you see a woman pushing a grocery cart, cross a sidewalk, stopping at an intersection, turning, crossing the street. So on and so forth. And the director, while this is happening, is providing an ongoing narration: "Great! Great! You're doing a great job! Continue to push the grocery cart. Now stop. Ah. Perfect! So natural!" The film you're looking at hasn't changed. It's the same piece of film, but our expectations about it have changed radically. Because in one case we see the material as being purely observational, and in the other case we see it as directed."

"When we talk about our intuitions of non-fiction and fiction, what we're really talking about is controlled and uncontrolled. Hence the 'auteur' theory is fiction, where we sort of imagine everything is controlled, script, lighting, acting, set, photography, you name it. It's sort of like the pure controlled fiction film--the pure 'auteur' film vs. the completely uncontrolled film. Kind of that dream of 'cinema verite' where everything just unfolds and the filmmaker and the camera does not interfere with what it's observing in any way. I think the real truth is that all kinds of filmmaking contains elements of both. It's what makes film interesting is that interplay of the controlled and uncontrolled in general. All documentary and all fiction have both of those elements. Maybe some in more significant quantity than the other, but it's always there. Part of what makes fiction film so interesting is that you are providing a documentary record of a performance. And to the extent that it's alive and doesn't seem completely mechanical, it comes alive. There is that uncontrolled aspect in all great feature filmmaking, in my opinion. I've just done something different in documentary than the other guy--than brand X, if you like. I draw the line somewhat differently. I draw attention, I like to think, to the line. I think that's a good thing, not a bad thing."

"People have this schtick that digital images have corrupted the news. Even the New York Times, this article about how CBS put this electronic billboard outside their window that doesn't really exist. It was just matted in there. And how deeply disturbing this is. I think it's not disturbing. I think it's good. I think it teaches us that images can deceive. That you don't read reality, truth, off of an image, like reading words off of a page. It's much deeper, much more complex. But for me, the uncontrolled aspect is language. The real guy telling in his own words, how he sees himself. That's not scripted. When you see Fred, and you know, there's something about watching Fred in the movie, talking. You know Errol Morris didn't write these lines, 'cause they're just, even for me, too damn weird. They're just too damned disturbing. I'm not that good."

Maybe Morris is that good. In addition to Mr. Death, he has a new television series, First Person making its debut on Bravo. He has other things on his plate: "I plan to make another dramatic feature. I plan to make more non-fiction. It all interests me." Indeed it does.

January 14, 2000

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