I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
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Sometime in the mid-1970s Errol Morris read a headline in the San Fransisco Chronicle—“450 Dead Pets To Go To Napa”— and decided to make a film about pet cemeteries. The result,Gates of Heaven (1978), launched Morris on a career as one of America’s best known and most controversial documentary filmmakers. In 1988, his haunting film The Thin Blue Linehelped overturn the conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of a Dallas police officer. More recently, in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997), Morris brought together the seemingly disparate stories of a lion tamer, a topiarist, and expert on the African mole rat and a scientist who designs robots, to create an eloquent portrait of obsession.
In his new film, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Morris follows the peculiar career of a self-styled execution technologist. As a small boy, Fred Leuchter accompanied his father to work at the local prison and was even allowed to sit in the electric chair. (A legend associated with this chair claims that to sit in it brings misfortune.) Leuchter grew up to become an engineer, whose main interest was improving electric chairs and making them more humane.
Leuchter’s work on chairs led to his being consulted about other kinds of equipment—lethal injection machines, gallows, gas chambers. This last proved his undoing: in 1988 Ernst Zündel, a German national living in Canada, was on trial for publishing remarks that the Holocaust is an Anti-German myth. Zündel’s lawyers hired Leuchter as an expert witness to go to Auschwitz and Birkenau and verify whether, in his opinion, they had been the site of lethal gas chambers. After examining the camps, he produced the notorious “Leuchter Report” and became involved in the Holocaust denial movement.
He soon found that no prison would employ him. I talked to Errol Morris in his office overlooking Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a corner room reassuringly furnished with books and photographs. At the end of our animated conversation, Morris emerged from behind his desk to show me a less obvious furnishing: a piece of wood, like a two-by-four. A gift from Leuchter he explained, it came from Leuchter’s pride and joy, the Tennessee electric chair, which he rebuilt, using as much of the original Victorian chair as possible. That chair in turn had incorporated the wood of the prison gallows.
“I don’t know if I should keep it here,” Morris said, but for now he does: the wood sits on the top of a tall bookcase.
Margot Livesey Tell me about the genesis of this remarkable film, Mr. Death.
Errol Morris The interview sat around for years because no one wanted to put money into it. It was considered too controversial. Although I filmed it years ago, the interview with Fred Leuchter sat on a shelf for a long, long time, even though I felt it was one of the best and certainly one of the most interesting interviews I had done.
ML Had Fred at that point already been contacted about the Zündel trial in Canada?
EM Oh, yes. I first met Fred in 1992, and he had been contacted about serving as a trial witness in 1988. There had been a number of articles, one in The Atlantic Monthly and a front page article in the New York Times…
ML You’ve commented that none of these articles brought together the two aspects of his activities, his revisionist activities on the Holocaust and the fact that he was an execution technician.
EM The Atlantic Monthly made no reference to his involvement with Zündel and Holocaust denial; the New York Times article made a passing reference to it. The article was called, “Can Capital Punishment Be Humane?” There was a big picture of Fred Leuchter on the front page, and buried very deep in the paper, a couple of sentences in reference to the Zündel trial.
ML And didn’t you at one point consider using Fred’s interview for your last documentary,Fast, Cheap & Out of Control?
EM Yes, but not really. My wife has this one line: “Whatever Hitler is, he is not a spice.” When you add Hitler as an ingredient to anything it becomes Hitler flavored; he dominates everything. It would have destroyed Fast, Cheap, essentially. It’s the difference between providing a portrait of someone where you can reconstruct their world without answering the question; Is what they believe true or false? Whereas in Mr. Death, Leuchter indeed makes a number of erroneous factual claims, factual claims that people care passionately about.
ML Mr. Death differs from your earlier films in several respects, both in the depth and complexity of the moral portrait that emerges from the interviews—and how that portrait connects with this century’s history and the pivotal fact of the Holocaust.
EM Mr. Death evolved from a movie that had just Leuchter as its subject and no one else, to a movie that had these other voices: the neofascist Zündel, the revisionist David Irving, the historian Robert Jan van Pelt… It became a much stronger movie as a result. The viewer has to have a way of gauging what Leuchter says in context, because the story is the rise and fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. and what precipitated his fall was the fact that he made false claims. That’s what brought about his undoing, and that’s really the centerpiece of the film. So the fact of whether or not his claims are true is not incidental, but the crux of the story. Did Leuchter really believe that the Holocaust never happened? How could he believe that? Why did he believe it, if he believed it? The mystery is not whether the Holocaust happened, because we already know it happened. The great mystery is how it could have happened. And in some small way we examine that mystery by examining the mystery of Fred.
ML That was very much how I understood the film. Step by step you bring us to that astonishing moment when Fred is blithely talking about how he could’ve improved the facilities at Auschwitz.
EM Fred says, If they had been killing people at Auschwitz, here’s how they should have done it.
ML I was also struck by the historian van Pelt’s remark about how the Nazis were the first deniers of the Holocaust. They were disclaiming genocide even as they performed it. That seemed so central to the film.
EM What does van Pelt mean when he says the Nazis were the first Holocaust deniers? Were they Holocaust deniers in their attempt to efface the historical record, to destroy traces of what they had done? Most certainly. We also know that the Auschwitz archive survived by happenstance, that the architectural record had been segregated from the main archive of the camp and overlooked when the main records were destroyed. But what the Nazis were actually thinking somehow still remains obscure. It’s something I can’t quite imagine. You know there is this old argument that goes back to Plato’s Pythagorus about why people do bad things. Do they do bad things knowing that they are bad? Or do they convince themselves that the bad things they’re doing are really good things? That the end justifies the means, or any number of other motives that you could imagine making. And the answer is probably all of the above. I ask myself, What did Fred think he was doing? And that’s a difficult question to answer, because in the course of the movie he portrays himself as a humanitarian, a seeker of truth, a scientist, a concerned citizen, a champion of the First Amendment…and at the end an almost Christlike victim of the people who seek to destroy him.
ML They misunderstood him.
EM He feels misunderstood and in the course of the movie he takes on a number of different chameleon-like personas.
ML It seems that Fred functioned well as long as he was in the execution milieu, the business of fixing up and designing electric chairs and gallows. But, when the neofascist Zündel comes into his life, his reasoning falls apart. He doesn’t even seem to understand, for example, the Canadian laws under which Zündel is being tried.
EM Years ago, when I was starting to work on The Thin Blue Line, I interviewed Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist, who was also given the name Dr. Death—in fact, over the years there have been three Dr. Deaths; Leuchter has been known as Dr. Death, and, of course, Kervorkian. Grigson claimed that he knew when people were lying or telling the truth. Defendants could be brought in to him for an examination and on the basis of that examination he deduced very basic things about them. And, on the basis of that he decided whether they would live or die.
How can I say this simply? It would really be nice if all of the evil-doers, all of the malefactors in our society were labeled. They’d either have scarlet letters branded on them, or there would be an easy way of identifying them so we could cull them from our midst. You could point your finger and say,“This one has to go.” The truth of the matter is, it is far more ineluctable than that. While I was working on this movie, Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executionerscame out. An interesting book, but troubling, because it answers the question, Why did the Germans kill the Jews? They killed the Jews because they were anti-Semites. Crudely put, but I think this is the essence of it. And I had this crazy, contrary idea. What if you could imagine the Holocaust without anti-Semitism? Goldhagen says that anti-Semitism was a sufficient condition for the Holocaust. What if it wasn’t even a necessary condition? What if the world is even more frightening and more troubling—
ML And even less rational.
EM Because one thing that is pretty clear to me about Fred, he isn’t an anti-Semite. Well, maybe there’s more to Fred than I can latch onto or identify, but I can tell you in my dealings with him over the past years, I have never had the feeling that Fred hates Jews, was brought up to hate Jews, or was involved in all of this for anti-Semitic reasons. And to me that makes it more horrifying.
ML One of the completely admirable things about the film is its refusal to sum Fred up or to give us any single way to categorize him. The two present-day Nazis, Zündel and David Irving, seem so different from Fred, and they both have such different views of him; Zündel calls him a hero and Irving calls him a simpleton. They both recognized he was not really one of them, however useful he was to their cause.
EM Yes. But I sometimes would think that there were three different kinds of Nazis in the movie, there was Zündel the avuncular, New-Age Nazi. Zündel was funny, he was charming, he was engaging; clearly anti-Semitic, obsessed with Jews. David Irving is the pseudoaristocratic, pedantic Nazi who I found the least sympathetic of the three. And Fred, the accidental Nazi, the guy who really isn’t even a Nazi, who somehow falls in with Nazis.
ML There’s a scene in the film when Fred gives a paper at the neo-Nazi conference and at the end he says,” I hope I haven’t disappointed you,” and just smiles at the audience, at the camera. It’s heart-wrenching. You think, Oh, Fred, you shouldn’t be in this company.
EM Well, you know, I have this tag line: What if we need to be loved more than anything else in the world, and the only people who will love you are Nazis? What do you do?
ML When I asked about the genesis of the film, one thing I had in mind was that you had studied philosophy in your twenties. What kind of philosophy?
EM Analytic philosophy.
ML Did some of the moral complexity of the film come out of that?
EM Yes, I like the fact that Fred does emerge as a somewhat sympathetic, complex figure. You know there is the Goldhagen, anti-Semitic model of the Holocaust. And then there is Hannah Arendt’s argument from Eichmann in Jerusalem, the bureaucratic argument. It’s the modern idea of the state of faceless bureaucrats disconnected from the evil of what they’re actually doing. The term “banality of evil” comes from that book. But that model doesn’t seem quite right to me either. I would not characterize Leuchter as a bureaucrat; he’s a romantic.
ML And what is the love object of his romance?
EM Death. I often describe it as a Tristan and Isolde type of story: he’s Tristan and the electric chair is Isolde. (laughter) It’s a love affair with death. A very peculiar love affair with death. Fred is not disinterested, he is passionate and involved. Fred is committed. And there’s something quite interesting about that as well. I’m hard-pressed to tell you what exactly it is, but it still fascinates me… Maybe I share some of it.
ML Looking at the lineage of your films, one might suspect that. But isn’t it the case that Fred has never actually witnessed an execution?
ML I find that quite remarkable.
EM I don’t think that he’s interested in seeing an execution. I’ve asked him about it. He didn’t express disinclination to see one, it’s just that the occasion has never presented itself. After all, he’s not an executioner, he’s an execution technologist, a guy who fabricates, designs, and repairs the equipment.
ML Talking about romance, there’s also some suggestion in Mr. Death that the invitation to foreign travel coincided rather neatly with Fred meeting his wife. I like the way he took her along to Auschwitz, for their honeymoon, his odd domestication of the whole activity.
EM Yeah, the honeymoon at Auschwitz.
ML She clearly felt that she was being upstaged by his first love. She would sit in the car doing crossword puzzles.
EM …or the honeymoon from Hell.
ML You’ve said that the version of Mr. Death you showed at Harvard gave people no place to be outside of Fred’s head. At that point, interviews with other subjects had not yet been included in the film.
EM Yes, it needed more points of view. Fred alone is a version of the Stockholm syndrome: if you’re taken hostage, in time you begin to identify with your kidnappers. When you are trapped in a room with just Fred, everything becomes skewed. I was very, very surprised at the response to that screening. To me it was quite clear that the movie was filled with irony, and that there was a story embodied in what Fred said without having to add any external commentary. But judging from people’s reactions after watching the film, it became clear I was wrong. People bought into Fred’s story, hook, line and sinker. They began to wonder, Why didn’t he find cyanide in the brickwork at Auschwitz? And was there poison gas used at Birkenau? That response was unacceptable to me.
ML Were the two Holocaust scholars you ultimately included already active against Fred when you interviewed them?
EM Yes. Shelly Shapiro was active over a number of years, culminating with the publication of a book published by the Holocaust Survivors and Friends Foundation called Truth Prevails—Demolishing Holocaust Denial: The End of “The Leuchter Report”. I probably shouldn’t make the argument for Shelly Shapiro but I will anyway—it’s basically that if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and so on, then it is a duck. Fred lends himself to all of these anti-Semitic organizations, he hangs out with all of these known anti-Semites, he denies the Holocaust and we are all aware of the position of Holocaust denial in relation to postwar canons of anti-Semitism, so for all intents and purposes Fred is an anti-Semite. Period. That’s okay. I think that critics will feel that the movie does not go far enough in talking about Holocaust denial and its connection to anti-Semitism. My only reply is that the movie is not about that. It’s about the nature of…evils. But their argument would go that Fred was naive when he first went to Auschwitz, but in the ensuing years, 1989 to 1991, when he lent his voice to these people and traveled throughout Europe to do additional investigations for Zündel and the Institute for Historical Review, that you could no longer simply say that this man was ill-informed or naive or gullible.
ML Mr. Death certainly suggests that the person Fred was when he first went to Toronto and embarked on this mission for the neo-Nazis did change in response to those experiences. The lure of the approbation, the temptation, all these things conspired to change him from that nice, practical man who fixed electrical chairs so that a convict would die more comfortably into someone else. The film argues that we are not just one thing, we respond to what happens to us.
EM We fall into a strange trap of our own devising.
ML This report he wrote went on to have such effect in some limited circles that it became notorious. For Fred it was like writing a bestseller or making a blockbuster, a moment of superlative achievement comparable to his refurbishment of his favorite electric chair, the Tennessee chair, but on a much bigger scale. He’d attained a new status.
EM Yes, in his own mind as well. It’s a great example of pseudoscience, among other things. Someone goes to Auschwitz, they take a hammer and chisel, they remove brick and mortar, they take the brick and mortar back for analysis, and the results are,“No cyanide in the brickwork.” So the answer is…complicated. What are you really telling us? What is he telling us?
ML It’s like creationists dealing with fossils.
EM I wanted to make it clear in the movie that there is no doubt that Fred is wrong. That’s why I included other voices. People were killed with poison gas at Auschwitz. Hundreds and thousands of people were murdered in cold blood with gas at Auschwitz. I didn’t want to get trapped in some long recitation of every reason why Fred is wrong. The movie tries to sketch out the central reasons. The fact is that you’re dealing with a ruined landscape. My hope was that just looking at those visuals, just looking at what that place is like today, that you’d see that you’re looking at rubble.
ML And then you see the farmhouses built from the bricks of the crematoria, the woman in the window and the dog circling. And you realize how complicated it is to read the past if you have Fred’s kind of vision.
EM Yes. A lot of people become confused by the two different themes in the film. One is the perishability of evidence, and the other is what some people like to think of as the subjectivity of evidence, that somehow the past can be interpreted in any way we choose. I don’t believe that myself. Everything I’ve done is about there being a world out there where things happen. And a world that we can actually know in some way. The Thin Blue Line was not about how anyone could’ve committed that murder. It was about how one specific person committed it and was not charged with it, and the wrong person was. The Thin Blue Line tried to set that record straight. But you can imagine evidence being destroyed or moved; the Germans did their best to destroy evidence. They blew up the crematoria, burned the main archive at Auschwitz. They wrote their memoranda in such a way as to obscure the nature of what they were doing. And on and on and on. Fred was naive. That’s the nicest way of putting it.
ML Additionally, one could say that he suffers from hubris. There’s a certain vanity in his belief, in his own intellect…
EM Yes, his own infallibility. You know, we were planning to show the movie at Sundance, which we did, and I thought it important to show it to Fred privately before the public screening, this was last New Year’s Eve. Before showing it to him I went through a recitation of all the reasons why I thought he was wrong. It was like a fast laundry list. I didn’t want to belabor it, but I just wanted to make it clear to Fred: you looked at the site and you said that there were no gastight doors, no gastight windows, no ventilation system. You should be aware of the fact that there are Nazi documents which make reference to all of these things and to part of the various crematoria at Birkenau. Fred said, “Well, I’d have to see those documents myself. I wasn’t privy to those documents. But they could’ve been altered or adulterated in some way. And without seeing the documents myself and without being convinced myself of their authenticity—Blah, blah, blah—I still stand by my view.” Then I went through the whole deal about the bricks being exposed to the elements for close to 50 years, wind, rain, snow…the arguments about cyanide being a surface reaction, so on and so forth. I went through the whole nine yards, and it became clear that nothing I said made any difference whatsoever.
ML And does that increase your sense of the world as a more frightening place?
EM Yeah, I think it does. You know I’m fond of saying that human credulity is unfettered. People can believe utterly anything. And that is scary. Because you can’t reason with these people. You can’t present arguments in a clear, logical, cogent fashion, examine them and come to a rational conclusion. It doesn’t quite work that way. I think that belief…
ML Survives all opposition.
EM …survives all challenges.
ML I take it the film itself did not sway Fred any more than your laundry list did.
EM No, he liked the film.
ML He liked it?
EM He liked the film. I asked Fred a number of other questions that pointed out the nonsensibility of his argument. However, the most interesting question is: How is he able to believe this, given that there is such overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
ML That seems like a small key to how the Holocaust could’ve happened in the first place.
EM Yeah, I think it is a small key to it.
ML So even after spending all this time in Fred’s company, you still don’t have a sense of fully understanding how his mind works on this central question, or of his downfall.
EM The movie throws out its own set of conclusions, or half-conclusions: the role of hubris or vanity in all of this, Fred’s desire to please, to want to be part of this group of people, his dream of being a big shot, of standing on the stage of 20th-century world history, of challenging what he might call dogma, or orthodoxy.
ML I am reminded of that moment when Fred is defending his position, he says that since Auschwitz was a slave labor camp, the gas chambers wouldn’t make any sense—they needed the labor. There is something piercing about that because it’s how most of us feel about the Holocaust: it just doesn’t make any sense. And yet the majority of us also feel that we must somehow struggle to make sense of it.
EM It doesn’t make any pragmatic sense. Not only did it not contribute to the war effort, it may have so severely handicapped the war effort as to contribute to the fall of the Third Reich. Why would a state pursue a policy that in the end was so insane and so injurious to itself?
ML Isn’t that what we ask about Fred? Why would he pursue a course that was so injurious to himself? He could’ve taken the other path.
EM Yes. But instead his principles lead to his complete undoing.
ML You talked about his desire to please; how did he feel about pleasing you?
EM I asked myself, What are you hoping to achieve by showing Fred the movie? Is it an exercise in vanity on your part, that moment where Fred issues the mea culpa and says, “I’m terribly mistaken Errol, the Holocaust happened after all, and I’m really glad that you showed me all of this wonderful material and contributed to my understanding of 20th-century history.” What would that mean in the end? That Fred had found a new group to be interested in him and that he wanted to please? That I had somehow been a real nice guy in contributing to Fred’s moral education? It all seemed really quite pointless except for one thing; it seemed the correct thing to do. Fred is so unbelievably trusting, and that puts responsibility on my shoulders.
ML Did he ever ask you what the film’s agenda was? Or the message?
EM I told him that I wanted to provide a portrait of him, of what had happened to him, which I believe I have done. I never ever told him that I was going to vindicate his views about the Holocaust or about Auschwitz and Birkenau.
ML He was tempted and he fell. Your title suggests a comparison to one of the classic heroes, Tamburlaine or Othello.
EM It is a little morality play; I don’t know if I want to dignify it with the word tragedy, but it’s the story of one man’s downfall. I’d call it a fable.
ML That’s a nice distinction.
EM The end of Mr. Death is very much like the end of The Thin Blue Line. The Thin Blue Line is two movies grafted together. On one simple level is the question, Did he do it, or didn’t he? And on another level, The Thin Blue Line, properly considered, is an essay on false history. A whole group of people, literally everyone, believed a version of the world that was entirely wrong, and my accidental investigation of the story provided a different version of what happened. And Mr. Death is another story about false history. It becomes a story of someone living in a private world which is completely disconnected from the real world. I’m very proud of Mr. Death, I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. I usually finish these things feeling far more ambivalent about them. But this seemed to be a movie fraught with all kinds of peril, and I’m not completely convinced that I’ve avoided all of the danger areas, but at least I’ve made something that I think has some intellectual content.
ML It was an amazingly bold gesture to make a Holocaust film in disguise. You watch the first 30 minutes and think you’re watching a film about a man with a rather strange job and a very bad coffee habit. You’re lured into sympathy with him, or at least empathy. And then suddenly you cross some line, as Fred Leuchter himself seems to have done… The viewer becomes, in a sense, complicit. It’s part of the brilliance of the structure of the film, that by the time you know where you are going, you’re in it.
EM That’s intentional.
ML And it wasn’t easy to then point the finger. When you see Fred romping around Auschwitz you think, It’s not so different from his romping around one of those death cells that his dad took him to when he was four years old. Or where he worked as an adult. Auschwitz, for him, is part of a continuum.
EM It’s part of what interests me about Nabokov; he championed the self-deceived narrator. The clueless narrator who has no idea who he is or what he’s doing, the best examples beingPale Fire and Lolita. Fred struck me as the clueless narrator; the guy who is lost in some strange mythology of his own devising, this world that he’s created for himself. Maybe we are all, at some very deep level, clueless narrators of our own lives.
ML Did you ever find out about his education? I was struck by his eloquence and fluency.
EM He got a degree in history from Boston University.
ML In history? (laughter)
EM Fred is Everyman. But he’s a different kind of Everyman. Schindler’s List has the thesis that any man can be a hero. This movie has the different—and I like to think more interesting—thesis: that anybody can think they’re a hero. It was also my hope to create a different kind of movie about evil, or at least to examine it in my own way.
ML Which might be another of your lifelong obsessions. Do you have any sense of what draws you to certain subjects?
EM I suppose I don’t know. What makes something interesting to someone? Like poor Fred, maybe he just got electric-chair crazy as a little boy.
ML But, if we can’t even figure out our own inner lives, how arrogant to think we might be able to figure out someone else’s.
EM I’m not sure that’s the case. I think we may be in a better place to see other people than ourselves.
ML So you might know more about Fred than about yourself?
EM Well I might find out something about myself through Fred.
ML The way you end the film, one does see Fred’s humanity, that he’s not a monster or an effigy or a scapegoat. Well, he is a scapegoat, but not only those things. I got the impression that his life took a terrible nose-dive—he had no work, no companionship, no prospects. Yet he faces all of this…
EM …with a certain equanimity.
ML He doesn’t just lie down on the floor and scream. He shows up to appear in your film. Do you know what he’s doing now?
EM Yeah, he’s working on supposedly producing the world’s fastest modem.
ML Ah ha! So, a change of direction then?
EM Well…less lethal engineering. (laughter)
ML So he’s given up on his first romance, at least for a while.
ML What about your romance with the interview; will your next film be more interviews?
EM There is talk of doing a television series of half hours, just one person telling a story. I’m finishing a piece on Saul Kent, who’s a cryonics expert, and a piece on Sondra London, whose main claim to fame is that she’s been engaged to marry a serial killer. I’m not sure what I want to do; I’m thinking of doing another dramatic feature and a couple of nonfiction things.
ML It sounds like you always have more projects than you know how to get money for.
EM There are lots of projects; people are seemingly willing to pay for them at this point. Things are better than they’ve been in a long time. I’ve been talking with John Mack about doing a film with him. He’s a professor and the resident alien-abduction expert at Harvard Medical School. He’s written a dozen books and monographs, lots and lots of papers; he won the Pulitzer prize for T. E. Lawrence’s biography, and then he published this book Abduction, where he professed his belief that people were really being abducted by aliens. And Harvard tried to drum him out of the university. Mack and I have been talking about doing a project together.
ML I wanted to ask about your interview technique. Having watched all your films it seems as if people just talk to you. Is there something you do?
EM The nature of my technique, such as it is, is to listen receptively to what they want to tell me, whoever they are. I’m not in the business of forcing people into some uncomfortable place in order to try and get them to reveal themselves to me.
ML One part of the film does seem to be a belief in the eloquence of people, allowing them to finally tell some kind of truth about themselves if you create the opportunity.
EM There’s a real love of language in all this. I no longer do this, but I used to transcribe all my interviews myself. I would listen to them and type them out, and I was struck from the very beginning with how people really do reveal themselves through language. And Fred most certainly does that. Fred is—it seems like a crazy thing to say—a gifted speaker in his own way. And he comes up with lines which are so utterly remarkable and strange. I never could have invented Fred.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.