Errol Morris - Retrospective

Mr.Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Errol Morris

Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., an engineer from Malden, Mass. decided to become the Florence Nightengale of Death Row - a humanitarian whose mission was to design and repair, electric chairs, lethal injection systems, gallows and gas chambers. In 1988, Ernst Zundel, publisher of ‘Did Six Million Really Die?’ and ‘The Hitler We Loved and Why’ commissioned Leuchter to conduct a forensic investigation into the use of poison gas in WWII Nazi concentration camps. Leuchter traveled to Auschwitz and illegally took brick and mortar samples for analysis in order to ‘prove’ that the Holocaust never happened. Leuchter fully expected his involvement with Ernst Zundel to be the crowning achievement of his career, but instead it ruined him. Reopening the doors to this century’s keystone atrocity Morris bypasses a more obvious discourse on bigotry to examine instead the origins of evil in vanity and self-deception.


Errol Morris

Errol Morris came a long way before deciding on what he would really like to do. He never finished his studies in physics at Princeton and philosophy at Berkeley. One anecdote gives the best impression of that. ‘You just don’t want to look through my telescope’, Morris said to his professor, and he replied: ‘Errol, that’s not a telescope, it’s a kaleidoscope’! At that time Morris met Tom Luddy, director of Pacific Film Archives who will later introduce him to famous Werner Herzog.

In the middle of 70s Morris got interested in a story about Ed Gein, serial killer who inspired famous film psychopaths like Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface and Norman Bates. Morris filmed about 100 hours of material and interviews during one year but his plan to write a book or make a film never saw the light of day. It was an interesting attempt, though, because of his interview technique and somewhat morbid theme that evoked his later films.

His directorial debut, documentary ‘Gates of Heaven’ (1978) is important not only for his career, but because it made Werner Herzog eat his shoe. Herzog didn’t believe that Morris is going to finish this film so he made a bet. He lost, and a documentary was made about Herzog’s gastronomic adventure ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’. Let’s just say that he didn’t eat the shoe sole with the explanation that you don’t eat bones when eating a chicken also.

Morris got an idea for ‘Gates of Heaven’ when reading an article about companies which arrange pet funerals. He left out the narrative when describing a job, rituals needed to burry the pets and feelings of their owners. It’s his well know characteristic – letting the scenes talk for themselves.

His next work, ‘Vernon, Florida’ (1981), was even more morbid. Film portrayed inhabitants of one small city in Florida who cut their limbs (!) so they could collect the insurance money (!!). Original title ‘Nub City’ had to be changed because he got several life threats from some of the protagonists who were afraid that their con will be revealed.

His made his next film ‘The Thin Blue Line’ (1988) while working as a private investigator. His job experience helped him a lot in investigation of a Texas police officer murder and a way that police (intentionally?) ‘forgot’ contradictory statements of witnesses so an innocent man ended behind the bars. Combining the original statements with reconstructions, film gives a nice insight into the mess and contradictions of that case, and with its title it ironically questions ‘the thin blue line’ which separates the society from the anarchy.

In the 1992 he made ‘A Brief History in Time’, Stephen Hawking biography, and he’ll get back to biography approach in ‘Mr. Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.’ (1999), film about controversial mister from the title, technical ‘innovator’ when it comes to death penalties.

‘Fast, Cheap and Out of Control’ (1997) is considered to be one of his best films. Morris described 4 people with interesting jobs: lion tamer, topiary gardener, robotic scientist and man whose specialty are hairless mole-rats. Film is important because Morris used for the first time ‘interrotron’ technique of filming which he invented himself. With this technique the interviewed can address to the interviewee and look at the camera at the same time. Morris also used documentary, narrative and animated episodes (director of photography Robert Richardson did the same thing in Stone’s ‘JFK’ and ‘Natural Born Killers’), and in editing he often mixed narrative lines linking them to each other and investigating their similarities. Although it was well accepted by the audience American Academy labeled it as ‘unfictional’ film instead of documentary film (probably because of the interventions that reminded of narrative films), so it couldn’t run for an Oscar.

But in 2003 he got an Oscar for ‘Fogs of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara’, documentary about career of a former Secretary of Defense. Expression ‘fog of war’ is connected to the uncertainness which comes down to battle field when battles begin.

In his career he also made few commercials (for Adidas, Levi’s, Toyota), short film screened at the 75th Oscar Awards Ceremony, and his narrative debut ‘The Dark Wind’ (1991) wasn’t accepted by the audience or the critics. He is in production of a new film dealing with Abu Ghraib: ‘S. O. P.: Standard Operating Procedure’.

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Mr.Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Great Britain
1999, 91', color, 35 mm

Directed by:
Errol Morris

Peter Donahue

Edited by:
Karen Schmeer

Caleb Sampson

Dorothy Aufiero, David Collins, Errol Morris

Produced by:
Channel Four Films, Fourth Floor Pictures