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[whitespace] Errol the Pearl

Richard von Busack talks with peerless documentary maker Errol Morris about his latest film, 'Mr. Death'

The satirist Michael O'Donoghue once created a character called "Jean-Paul Sauvage, Philosopher-Detective"--a hard-boiled dick who wasn't afraid to ask all of the tough metaphysical questions.

Director Errol Morris studied philosophy at UC-Berkeley and worked as a private detective before making his breakthrough film Gates of Heaven, a documentary about a pair of Bay Area pet cemeteries. With much less hyperbole than usual, Roger Ebert called Gates of Heaven "the best film ever made."

Morris then moved to the East Coast, completing a number of fascinating and idiosyncratic documentaries: The Thin Blue Line, about a wrongly convicted victim of Texas justice; A Short History of the Universe, profiled the physicist Stephen Hawking; and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, a series of vignettes about men in unusual lines of work, such as a zoologist examining the behavior of naked mole rats, a topiary specialist and a lion tamer.

Morris continued his fast and cheap filmmaking in his March 1 debut on Bravo. The Bravo show, titled First Person carried on Morris' philosophical detective work into such real-life characters as Temple Grandin, an autistic designer of humane slaughterhouses; Sondra London, a woman who once dated an infamous serial killer; and Saul Kent, a cryogenics expert who has frozen his own mother's head. (Borrowing the title of producer Leon Roth's 1972 splatter film, Morris calls the Kent episode "I Dismember Mama.")

Morris' latest documentary, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter, Jr., is a comic/tragic real-life story about an engineer who maintains the machines that execute criminals: electric chairs, gas chambers and lethal-injection rigs. Because of this bizarre specialty, Leuchter was recruited by Paul Zundel, a Holocaust denier who convinced Leuchter to help him prove that poison gas was never used in Auschwitz.

Leuchter's tests "proved" that the Nazis were innocent of genocide. The Leuchter Report is a document that is an article of faith among neo-Nazis. It's destined, as one analyst put it, for "the cesspool of pretentious human folly." Recently, we spoke with Morris about Mr. Death.

Metro: What's that huge electrical behemoth Leuchter is climbing around at the beginning of Mr. Death?

Morris: The largest lighting machine in the world. It's at the Boston Museum of Science. It's Van de Graaff's own Van de Graaff generator. It used to be at Van de Graaff's lab at MIT.

Metro: When did you get the idea to film there?

Morris: Early on. You know, Fred is so intimately involved with those two twin engines of the 20th century: gas and electricity. And the idea of putting him in this monster seemed to be part of his own dreamscape, like God in control of lightning and thunder.

Metro: It might involve speculation on your part, but do you think Leuchter was drawn to Holocaust denial by virtue of being an engineer and a man of science. Or do you think Leuchter had Indiana Jones fantasies? Because in the scenes in which he's lowering himself into the chambers at Auschwitz I could swear I started hearing the John Williams music echoing in my mind.

Morris: It's complex. I think the idea was that he could solve what he considered a mystery. Of course, the real mystery is how could he ever think it was a mystery?

Metro: Did you ever try, offcamera, to convince him that, in point of fact, the Holocaust is a well-documented event?

Morris: Yeah. It was unsuccessful. It goes to show you that believing is seeing. If you want to hold on to a view, no matter how absurd, no matter how clearly wrong, you can just hang on to it, no matter what. I went through a whole laundry list of arguments with Fred proving he was wrong, but there was no evidence I could provide. Eventually, I realized it wasn't my problem, it was his problem.

Metro: Did you ever find your temper rising when you were arguing with him?

Morris: (Long pause) I never found myself becoming infuriated by Fred--no, that's not quite true. Zundel and (pro-Nazi historian David) Irving are in a different category. I think it's an important and interesting question whether Fred is an ant-Semite. Clearly, if he is an anti-Semite, he's a different kind of anti-Semite than Zundel and Irving.

Metro: Zundel and Irving are the villains in the piece. Watching Mr. Death, that Leuchter was like a lot of engineers I'd met--the kind of person who is out of his league when it came to anything you couldn't prove on a graph or a chart. But Irving was more like the late-show movie Nazi, like Conrad Veidt, willing to use someone he considered an underling, a subhuman, willing to drop people like Leuchter quickly once they'd fulfilled their little function.

Morris: Drop 'em like a hot potato.

Metro: So what was it like interviewing Irving?

Morris: Really frightening and disturbing. I'm Jewish. And I'm an American Jew. The experience of being an American Jew is a very different experience, to say the least, than being a Jew in central Europe during the '30s and '40s. My experience of anti-Semitism is practically nil. I remember when I was a little boy someone called me a Christ-killer. But that's a very mild kind of thing. In my day-to-day life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, do I encounter anti-Semitism? No.

I haven't talked about this explicitly before. When I'm interviewing someone I'm there to listen, I'm not there to judge. I'm there to have them tell me their story. I truly believe my major function is not to editorialize to them about my feelings. There's plenty of time to have feelings after the fact. Irving was going on and on about very explicitly anti-Semitic stuff--"The Jews should ask themselves why everyone hates them, why they're so despised"--then he changed his locution somewhat: "Why we are so despised?" And then at a certain point, he changed it to "you"--"they" to "we" to "you"--and for a moment, I became really disoriented. I had this horrible feeling of uneasiness. I felt that this position of just listening had broken down together, and I was being attacked.

Metro: You mentioned that you were sitting in the Interratron when this happened. There's a description of the Interratron in The New Yorker, and yet, I couldn't quite visualize it.

Morris: I've had this experience again and again. People will come into the studio and say, "Oh! So that's what it is. Not like I imagined it." I'm not willfully covering up. Basically, you put the interviewees in a sort of studio.

Metro: I've read that essentially the Interratron is a teleprompter underneath a 35mm camera. A teleprompter displays text in a TV screen below the lens of a television camera. You can read it as it scrolls up and still be looking in the direction of the camera. Thus it looks like you're having a heart-to-heart conversation with the viewers.

Morris: I took out the text function on the TV screen and put on my live face.

Metro: I think it's a great idea, personally. I often find that the urge to make contact with an interview subject sometimes breaks up a thought. What are the advantages and the disadvantages of the Interratron?

Morris: I don't know if I'd call them disadvantages. There are various styles of interviewing. There's the adversarial Mike Wallace style, watching the celebrity interviewer watching the subject wriggle and twitch. It's the position of moral superiority. You are a bad guy! I am a good guy! I will make you confess! Then there's also the over-the-shoulder-type interview. Obviously, you aren't you're seeing over their shoulder. I find that using the Interratron makes the interview more like a laboratory, makes the interviewer and the camera one and the same. There is no third party there.

Metro: You only break the frame once in Mr. Death, and that's at the end of the movie.

Morris: That's to remind people that there's a human being there. And I figured also that everyone wants to ask that question, including myself. So let's ask the question: "Did you ever think you might be wrong, Fred?" And he gives an amazing answer: "I'm well past that."

Metro: What's he up to now?

Morris: More technology. That steady diet of technology. He says he's working on the world's fastest modem.

Metro: It'll do people some good, anyway. In Mr. Death, it looked like your most difficult interview was with Leuchter's ex-wife.

Morris: She was very reticent about talking. It was no easy matter to get her interviewed on audiotape let alone film. I love her voice, it's one of a kind; she should be doing voices-overs and commercials. There's a voice filtered through a hundred million tons of gravel.

Metro: Even prerelease, has the film been denounced by Holocaust deniers?

Morris: I'm being damned with great praise. The Holocaust deniers have all said they like the movie. If they're idiotic enough to deny the Holocaust, maybe they're idiotic enough to believe this movie proves the Holocaust didn't happen.

There's a great essay by Arnold Schopenhauer called "The Art of Controversy." Not so surprisingly, it's cynical. It starts off by saying, there are two ways to win an argument: logic and dialectic. Now, we all know that no one wins an argument with logic, so let's pass on quickly to dialect. Schopenhauer proceeds to give you 30-plus ways to win an argument. And he has the last resort if your argument has been demolished and you've been shown to be a complete idiot: what you're supposed to do is fix the person right in the eye and say, "You know, I'm really glad you came around to my way of thinking."

Metro: I was reading that you were going to do a fiction film next. Is it because of the challenge of the material or because a feature film has a better commercial chance?

Morris: It's hard to argue with the commercial side. It's the way this damned business is financed. It always irritates me that when people ask about a documentary, they ask, "How is it funded?" When it's a feature film, they ask, "How is it financed?" I've become more concerned with visual style in what I do, and it's just expensive. Getting the rain and the fog in the garden in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control involved rain machines, towers, a crew of 50­100 people. These nonfiction budgets are killer.

Part of me just wants more money. I can put it in just those craven terms. Not necessarily money to line my pockets with but money to work with, to create stuff. I do a lot of commercials, stuff for IBM, Levis, Honda, Bayteck, Bank One. In a way, it's depressing, because I get onto a commercial set doing something that lasts 30 seconds, and I really have vast amounts of money to spend. Thin Blue Line cost $1.3 million to make; my first commercial was budgeted at $1.7 million. There are also lots of stories I have that can't be told as documentaries, they have to be told as fiction.

Metro: Is part of the attraction of doing television because you can work faster with less money?

Morris: I love being forced to work quickly. The TV thing has an insane schedule, so it's just go out there and do it. I remember that Andy Warhol wrote that he'd made a distinction between "thinking time" and "doing time." And he said that he'd come to the decision that his thinking time was worthless--that it was the doing time that made all the difference. And I don't know if I completely agree, but I think there's a danger of thinking too goddamn much.

It's great to be thrown into a studio and be told, you have X number of hours to do it. And the TV thing allows me to play with video in a way that I never even thought of before. You really sort of sending money through the gate of the camera when you're making a film. But now you're putting a cartridge of videotape and what does it cost, $18 for an hour? So all of a sudden, I'm using 12 to 18 video cameras together. Where is it all gonna lead?

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Web extra to the March 22-29, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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