Morris Shines a Light on Fred Leuchter

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., an Errol Morris Film

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by William Halvorsen



   Against the baritone backdrop of Fred Leuchter's reminiscences, film maker Errol Morris takes a journey inside the mind of the brilliant engineer of execution systems in "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr." The film is difficult to evaluate, particularly from a revisionist perspective: Morris' films are supposed to be exercises in irony, not documentaries in a strict sense. Yet the whole aim of revisionism is to dispel the double-visions, and the superstitious delusions, which make irony possible. This simply means that if Morris had made a positive contribution to revisionism, the irony would have been tragic, but if he had made the kind of movie he wanted to make, the irony would have been non-existent. As a result, instead of a revisionist breakthrough, or a delicious satire, Morris has been left with very little, except, possibly, a friend.

   The first third of the movie involves a quiet back and forth between Leuchter, whose smoky voice, tinged with a Boston accent, is unmistakable, and Morris, whose constant snorts of laughter remind us of the man who would be Curly. Superimposed throughout are the kind of visual juxtapositions for which Morris is famous: Fred mugging while tied up to an execution device, streams of dark brown coffee pouring as Fred discusses his 40 cup a day habit, a Currier & Ives print as Fred discusses the possibility of an easeful execution.

   A more dramatic turn takes place about forty minutes into the film, as Leuchter discusses his role in the second trial of Ernst Zündel in 1988, who was tried for "spreading false information" because he distributed a pamphlet that contradicted the standard Holocaust story. In an attempt to defend his position, Zündel, at the behest of Robert Faurisson, hired Leuchter, who wrote the report that bears his name. 

   It has been said that the film has undergone several changes since it was first shown: it seems that at an early showing at Harvard in late 1998, several in the audience found themselves agreeing with Fred's common sense arguments, while others felt that Morris was "defending a Nazi." (Of course, Fred is neither a Nazi nor a racist.) 

   We can imagine what must have been Morris' amazement when he calibrated audience reactions that he had never expected to hear. Had the ironist, recalling Nietzsche, found his own irony? But it seems likely that the problem can be traced back to Morris himself, just a little too confident of his ability to discern the reality that none of his subjects could see. 

   In recent interviews, Morris has chosen to stress his fascination with death, as well as his status as a Jew who lost relatives in the Holocaust. There's probably an element of self-exculpation here, but there's also a hint as to what may have been Morris' original conceptual problem. Being Jewish, and brought up on the mindset that simply accepts every aspect of the Holocaust uncritically, he no doubt thought that any one listening to his interviews with Leuchter about Auschwitz would regard them as hysterically absurd, as, well, concentrated camp.

   But the problem was that for once Morris broke the surly bonds of satire and found himself soaring weightless in reality. Fred is not a stupid person. His ideas are not insane. His report, although flawed, contained a genuine core of insight and inspiration. But Morris could not see any of this; for once, he could not appreciate the irony. Twenty years ago, he had college students laughing as old folks talked about meeting their dogs in heaven. He figured that Fred Leuchter would be just as funny. He was wrong: as the saying goes, the joke was on him.

   By all accounts there have been several alterations made to the film. First and foremost, Morris had to rebut Fred's arguments on Auschwitz. To do this effectively, he enlisted the help of the eager Robert Jan van Pelt, a professor of architecture from Canada, who shows in this film a remarkable talent for self-promotion and for confusing otherwise straightforward arguments with vast expanses of rhetorical fog. 
Morris also called on James Roth, the scientist who had originally confirmed Leuchter's findings, but who now disavowed the value of the work altogether.

   While those adjustments tended to deflate Fred's arguments, they did nothing to dispel the sense of injustice the audience was bound to feel for Fred, whose life was destroyed -- to put it bluntly -- by activists who will not accept that anyone can publicly disagree with their cherished beliefs. So the film was again trimmed, a potential slant showing Fred as a free speech martyr, and another, accentuating the anti-Germanism of the traditional Holocaust narrative, also, apparently, ending up on the cutting room floor.

   There's really not much left to do with the film, now, except to try spin control before viewings. At the premiere in Los Angeles, Morris appeared and came dangerously close to betraying the man who had trusted him by calling him crazy. 

   It's probably not easy for Morris to say these things. Not easy because, even if he believes them, what comes across in this film is a genuine liking and rapport between Morris and Leuchter. Morris, a brilliant and eccentric film maker, could appreciate the brilliant eccentricities of Fred Leuchter, even if he didn't believe them. And what Morris must understand by now, is that Fred wasn't destroyed so much for what he did or said about any one thing, but just because he is a brilliant eccentric, which means that next time it just might be Errol Morris' turn. But, as we noted at the beginning, a film that underlined that truth wouldn't be funny anymore. It would be a tragedy.

 

Installed: 07/27/98, 1: 00 AM, PST


Source: The Revisionist, Codoh Series, No. 3, 2000, pp. .
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