While Sergei Eisenstein was the filmmaker/theorist who stressed that the cinema's creation of meaning is centered on the splice, few films give Eisenstein's idea of "intellectual montage" a more creative contemporary spin than Errol Morris' new documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Morris shows us, in effect, two images of his eponymous subject. In the film's first half hour, Fred Leuchter is a nerdy-but-sincere expert on prison execution whose lethal prescriptions are given with the chipper earnestness of a Boy Scout describing the best way to skin a rabbit. Then?after a splice supplied by the inscrutable goddess of history?this same friendly Fred is a scientist giving empirical support to people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened.
Fred, the "humane" minder of our electric chairs, gallows and lethal-injection systems. Fred, the self-created Sherlock Holmes who steals brick samples from Auschwitz, subjects them to chemical analysis and then testifies in court that the concentration camp's gassings could never have occurred. How can these images?with all the volatile ideas attached to each?conceivably connect? Or is it possible that they don't connect, that their juxtaposition testifies merely to history's callous randomness and our quixotic thirst for meaning?
Documentaries, especially those that achieve theatrical release, aim for a fairly narrow audience, one that's presumably older, more educated and more politically liberal than the average moviegoer. If you asked such a viewer (who hadn't yet seen the movie, let's suppose) to guess how the two images of Fred Leuchter in Mr. Death possibly connect, you might get a surmise along the lines of: "The execution expert becomes a Holocaust denier because both outlooks presuppose a cruel disregard for, if not a pathological hostility toward, human life: the first position might easily and naturally lead toward the second."
Sounds reasonable. I might've thought the same myself. But it's not how things work in Morris' film, which never lets those improbable images of Leuchter connect in any way that's obvious, sensible and comfortingly explanatory. In fact, Mr. Death finally leaves us more deeply perplexed and vaguely at-sea than any simple analysis of the film might suggest, in part because of its suggestion that the issues of capital punishment and Holocaust denial are here troublingly complicated by what at first might seem a negligible sidelight?the little-heralded reality that Canada's laws, unlike our own, don't guarantee freedom of speech.
I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of Mr. Death's reviews don't even allude to that fact. In a film that contains images of U.S. electric chairs and Nazi crematoria, it's easy to ignore, and Morris?strategically, problematically?chooses neither to stress it nor to make it central to his film. But it is nonetheless. It's the subtly jolting splice that renders the composite image of Mr. Death so tantalizingly incommensurate and, thus, brilliantly unsettling.
Since discussing the film's basic juxtaposition of ideas in terms of the death penalty and the Holocaust is a bit obvious, permit me to suggest an alternative, namely, that Morris' dramatic and intellectual itinerary be pondered by means of a geographic/literary analogy. Let us say that its first ("happy executionist") phase be considered a mordantly comic story about America, as might've been reported or invented by Mark Twain. And that its second ("Holocaust denier") section be regarded as a dark cautionary tale about Europe, one that a latter-day Henry James might construct. In both versions, please note, Fred Leuchter is neither hero nor villain, but simply our dogged, hapless protagonist?a reflection of our own dogged, hapless American selves.
The droll opening section gives us Fred as a quintessential American type: the Tinkerer, the sort of gee-whiz savant who is the cornerstone of every high-school science fair (runty and bespectacled, he would be played by Charles Martin Smith in any fictional Mr. Death). The main difference between Fred and, say, Bill Gates is that the former uses his know-how in service of Thanatos rather than Mammon.
The son of a Massachusetts prison warden (that "Jr." in the film's title is important), Fred spent his youth in an apparently happy environment of convicts and death rows, then grew up to face the dashing realization that most execution equipment was so defective as to make the official dispatching of prisoners as cruel as it was, relatively speaking, unusual. As he explains to Morris, this deficiency was hurtful not only to the doomed but to the wardens, who often looked upon themselves as the surrogate fathers of the condemned and thus were distraught to see their charges leave this world writhing in unnecessary agony, like sacrificial Frankensteins lit up in some unholy travesty of the backyard barbecue.
So Fred set about perfecting an efficient, effective and therefore humane (again, relatively speaking) electric chair. Later he turned his tinkering skills to other execution technologies. Of course he was largely self-taught. Execution being somewhat of a social dirty secret, our universities do not offer advanced degrees in it, which also explains how Fred, whose handiwork apparently performed as advertised, became a recognized expert sought out by state officials who, no doubt, were relieved to find someone able to professionally ameliorate the embarrassments (blazing craniums, overcooked flesh) of their death houses.
It's pretty hard to dislike this Fred, goofy gargoyle though he may be. Like the eager beaver with the slide rule in every science class, like the four protagonists of Morris' last feature, the somewhat overrated Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, he's simply a guy in love with what he does. Certainly, his objects of study are disconcertingly morbid and will only rekindle the outrage of death-penalty opponents, yet even they are bound to allow that Fred himself isn't the enemy: in fact, his inventions surely do reduce the suffering of those whom our state governments condemn to die.
After Mr. Death has profiled his professional acumen, Fred confides that he consumes 40 cups of coffee and six packs of cigarettes a day. It was at one of his coffee stops that he met the refill-happy waitress who became his wife, the bride he took to Auschwitz on their honeymoon. Here, the story turns from macabre to bizarre, as the Tinkerer bumblingly encounters the Damned.
Since the U.S. is the only country that now executes people with gas, and Fred is an expert in execution science, it was perhaps inevitable that he would be sought out by the legal defense team of Ernst Zundel. Canada has laws that criminalize the publication of "false history" with the intent of inciting racial hatred, and Zundel, a German national residing in Canada, was indicted under these statutes for publishing tracts denying that the Holocaust occurred.
Acquiring the services of Fred Leuchter as an expert witness may well have been a wild gamble on the part of Zundel's lawyers. If so, it paid off handsomely. Given a role to play on the stage of history, Fred took off like a hound chasing a hedgehog. He gathered up equipment and helpers and went off to the death camps of Poland?on what appears to be his first trip abroad, with new bride in tow?where he sneakily inspected the facilities and illegally chipped numerous samples of brick from the walls of the execution chambers. We witness all this via videotapes taken at the time, in which Fred seems to be enjoying the lead role in some self-created adventure yarn: A Hardy Boy in Hell, say.
Back at home, Fred submitted his brick samples to an independent chemical analysis that, along with his observation of the sites, convinced him that no gassings could have or did take place at the Polish concentration camps. James Roth, the manager of the lab that performed the analysis without knowing the origins of the materials being examined, tells Morris that Fred's conclusions were unwarranted: the residue of any gas would have been on the surface of the bricks and would be lost in the analysis of big chunks of brick such as Fred provided. But Fred read the results as he saw fit and, quite beyond testifying in Zundel's behalf, became the author of The Leuchter Report, a document that made him a celebrity and in-demand speaker on the European Holocaust-denial circuit.
Even so, it's hard to see this Fred as someone suddenly revealed as a creature of deep malice or festering anti-Semitism. Hungry for adventure and approbation and deluded by professional vanity, surely. Still, he comes across not as a bad guy so much as a foolish innocent abroad, a Yankee Doodle naif who stumbles blindly into the snares set by foreign belief systems and historical passions.
Here, things get a little tricky. Zundel claims the Holocaust is "a myth." The problem is that the Holocaust is a myth, though not in the deluded sense Zundel intends, which denies that millions of Jewish civilians were systematically exterminated by the Nazis. It's a myth in the sense that this terrible crime has been transformed into an untouchable, quasi-religious event fraught with a Significance quite beyond anything that mere history might support. In this understanding, in fact, the Holocaust is something other than normal history: it is exceptional, unique, a monstrous singularity that somehow redefines everything that came before and after it.
Given its essentially supernatural character, this view inevitably tends toward what might be called Holocaustolatry, which, as propagated by nonreligious Jews, is troubling in that it effectively makes a demonic god of Hitler, God per se having been banished from the historical scenario. Naturally, the nonreligious don't present their interpretation as supernatural; rather, the Holocaust becomes "the central event of 20th-century history," or some such. Of course, for non-Jews the Holocaust isn't even the central event of the European theater of World War II, much less the epoch. But non-Jewish Americans don't generally make a fuss about this, for the simple reason that America is founded on a profound tolerance for other people's supernatural beliefs: If the Holocaust is what strikes you as transcendent, then more power to you, says our basic creed.
The problem comes in trying to convert the quasi-religious view of the Holocaust into a kind of secular, civil article of faith, since, in a way that Freud would surely recognize, the irrational element in Holocaustolatry must inevitably produce its irrational opposite: Holocaust denial. This is where the Canadians' wacky assault on false history factors in. You may have noticed that there are no wild-eyed deniers of the Crimean War, say, or of the invention of penicillin. That's because those events belong to the realm of regular, mundane history. The supposed threat of "false" history only visits history that's been privileged with the unchallengeable sanctity of religion.
Mr. Death is the closest thing we're likely to get to a film that questions Holocaustolatry, a mild form of which is now firmly established as part of our official culture. From Gates of Heaven on, all of Errol Morris' scrupulously ironic documentaries concern belief, and generally look on individual and collective belief systems as idiosyncratic mental creations that reflect the peculiar emotional and psychological imperatives of their creators. So it is here. Fred's cardinal belief, like that of most people in our degraded age, is in science, which is obviously great at certain things but not so hot at dealing with metaphysical matters; indeed, that precise lack partly explains how Fred gets suckered into supporting the poisonous irrationalities of the Holocaust deniers.
Naturally, Morris must be subtle in pointing up the more benign irrationalities of the Holocaustolators, and he is. Next to Fred's always-dispassionate and commonsensical-sounding analyses of why the concentration camp facilities couldn't have been used for gassings, he juxtaposes the testimony of Canadian "cultural historian" Robert Jan van Pelt, who speaks heatedly of Fred committing "sacrilege" in the "holy of holies" (i.e., the gas chambers). Where Fred points out that the ceilings of these chambers contain no venting ducts, van Pelt broods over Nazi communiques and architectural plans, which, apart from their talismanic value, are far from clear-cut in the evidence they offer.
Other Holocaust activists, meanwhile, opine that Fred is a "hate monger" and "anti-Semite" who has "made a deal with the devil." As Morris layers them into his chronicle, such comments do indeed demonstrate the religious emotionalism that characterizes both sides of this supposedly "historical" dispute, just as they point toward Fred's melancholy if hardly unexpected fate: pursued by Jewish pressure groups, he loses his professional standing and sees his personal life collapse in disarray.
In juxtaposing Holocaust belief against Holocaust denial via the strange case of Fred Leuchter, Mr. Death is much like other Errol Morris films. Yet it also differs from them in that it stumbles upon something more concrete than "mere belief"?the principle of free speech. If we return to the geographic analogy suggested above, it might be pointed out that the Holocaust denial is primarily a European phenomenon, just as the Holocaust itself, rather than being some inexplicable blast from the supernatural, was very much a part and a product of centuries of European pogroms against the Jews: more broadly defined, it represented the very sort of murderous, intolerant religious authoritarianism that many Europeans, Jews and Christians alike, came to America to escape.
By that geographic/cultural measure, Canada's legal suppression of free speech represents a still-active evil, an imported taint of the old European corruption. Today it's used to boost the Jewish cause; tomorrow it could be used to bury it. That's why Fred Leuchter, foolishly misguided and hopelessly naive schlub that he may be, deserves to be understood as he understands himself. This is how he explains his actions in Mr. Death:
"I testified in Canada for two reasons. First, the trial was an issue of free speech, and of freedom of belief. As an American, one who supports the Bill of Rights, I believe that Mr. Zundel has the right to believe and say what he chooses. I have this right in the U.S. Secondly, Mr. Zundel was not on trial for a misdemeanor. This was a major felony; he could have faced up to 25 years in prison for printing a document stating that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. I believe that any man, no matter what he's done, has a right to a fair trial and the best possible defense that he can muster. I unfortunately was the only expert in the world who could provide that defense. There was no one else."
In "The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema," a two-part article printed here this past summer, I argued that the impending conversion of movie theaters to digital projection would bring about widespread changes affecting the practice of moviemaking, the kinds of entertainment offered at movie theaters and the understanding of cinema as an art form. In its infinite wisdom, or perhaps as a merry millennial prank, the Museum of Modern Art has chosen to kick off the new cinematic century with a symposium on the ideas in my article; it will be held at the museum next Tuesday, Jan. 11, at 6 p.m. (11. W. 53rd St., betw. 5th & 6th Aves., 708-9480). Laurence Kardish, MOMA's chief film curator, will moderate the panel discussion, which, besides myself, will include Peter Bogdanovich, the director of The Last Picture Show, Texasville and other films; cinematographer and director John Bailey, whose work as a d.p. ranges from Ordinary People to the upcoming digital version of David Hare's Via Dolorosa; Three Seasons producer Jason Kliot, who has recently started a production company for low-budget digital features; Mark Gill, president of the L.A. division of Miramax Films; and Rochelle Slovin, director of the American Museum of the Moving Image. Come one, come all.