A matter of life and death

Errol Morris's films are populated with eccentrics. Such as the former electric-chair repairman in his new documentary, who came back from Auschwitz denying that anyone could have been gassed there.
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The Independent Culture

Sitting in the restaurant of the Sheffield Novotel on a grey October morning, Errol Morris lets out a deep sigh. The director known for his ability to root out the crazy and the curious finds himself playing the role of the weird one here. As the waitress plops a huge plate with a tiny mound of watery scrambled egg white and a desultory piece of dry toast in front of him, she raises her eyebrows at me. "Crazy Americans," I hear her thinking.

Attending the city's annual documentary festival with his latest work, Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A Leuchter, Jr, Morris is struggling with more than northern England's distaste for faddy food: he is volubly aggrieved that his work is hardly ever seen in cinemas in Britain. He tells me that it's enough to make him give up the genre entirely. It's a miserable half-hour, listening to the man responsible for such wonderful films as Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control detail his disaffection and dismay.

"I wouldn't say I'm in a state of despair," Morris laughs when I catch up with him at home in Boston, six months later. "But I am still reluctant to continue making feature-length documentaries." Documentary's loss will be drama's gain: Morris is currently at work on a fiction script. "It will be no more pure drama than my non-fiction world is pure documentary - I think that I inhabit a strange, grey area."

No practitioner of vérité, Morris describes his films as "dreamscapes", illustrations of the world as viewed by the protagonists. His camera roams, swirls and cocks its lens, scrutinising every angle. "In most non-fiction, the arrows point outwards, in an exploration of an exterior world. I like to think that in my films, the arrows point inwards in an exploration of personality, of an interior mental landscape," he says.

In his best-known work, The Thin Blue Line, Morris investigated a murder with the camera, the truth appearing to emerge as much from the mélange of form as from the confessions teased out of the main players. A miscarriage of justice was overturned - Randall Adams was released from death row - and Morris's name as a film-maker of note was established.

Yet perhaps his greatest skill is as an interlocutor. "I just allow people a stage on which to speak. To me, the worst kind of interview is when you have a list of questions and you already have in mind what the answer should be. That becomes an exercise in fulfilling prophecies; it's not really investigative." Morris is excited by mystery, by not believing that all is as it at first seems.

He is well trained: in earlier days, he made his living as a private detective. The unerring inquisitiveness remains: many of his films, like his TV series, Interrotron Stories, grow from newspaper clippings that have piqued his interest. He loves tales of people locked in their own worlds, living parallel lives. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control merged four such men, two of the past - a lion-tamer and a topiarist - and two of the future - a molerat expert and a robot scientist - and turned their obsessions not just into acts of heroism, but into a meditation on the meaning of life.

It was a colossal achievement to intertwine four such disparate lives into an exquisite cinematic essay. "It was my attempt to make an elegy," Morris explains. "It was about trying to create order out of chaos by touching on this deep human need to create a world within a world - a world a little more manageable than the world we actually live in."

Mr Death is the result of Morris's spotting a story in The New York Times headed: "Can capital punishment be humane?". The subject is Fred Leuchter, former electric-chair repairman and general handyman to the American capital-punishment industry, and latterly the Holocaust-denier whose scientific evidence convinced David Irving there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Only in Errol Morris's hands could such material become at once farcical and frightening and Leuchter both a chillingly banal exponent of evil and a hapless fool.

"It's an absurdist film," Morris proffers. "A crazy comedy about vanity, self-involvement, self-importance. It's also an absurdist nightmare about denial, self-deception and false belief." Leuchter is a self-styled champion of the people: he is the Florence Nightingale of death row, creating "painless execution" so that those who must die - and, he reiterates, they must - can do so with some dignity.

He is, for the first third of Mr Death, a curio, an anachronism; the small man, living a small life, who somehow reads big things into everything he does. Morris lets him describe himself as a humanitarian, seeker of truth, champion of the underdog: "I give him enough rope to hang himself." And we laugh at Fred's hyperbole. Leuchter is a ridiculous eccentric, but - as far as someone so connected to state-sanctioned killing can be - benign. Until, that is, the tale turns: fighting court action in Canada, neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel looks for an expert in lethal gas. His defence team check out the execution experts in the American phone book and find only Fred - a neo-Nazi wet dream, as Morris puts it - who journeys abroad for the first time, with a hammer and chisel, a sack full of polythene bags and a video camera, returning to "prove" that there were no killings by gas at Auschwitz.

Now, the small man with an inflated sense of self becomes something of a hero, welcomed into the fold of those who refute history, being asked to address meetings with "The Leuchter Report". And, at the same time, he is attacked as an anti-Semite, his business ebbs away, and his marriage breaks up. "Fred does not go through this dispassionately - throughout this story he sees himself as a champion of civil liberties, a scientist, even a Galileo figure, until by the end of the movie he has become, in his own mind, almost Christlike."

Does it worry Morris that there are many revisionist websites claiming Mr Death as their breakthrough film? "One could call it being damned with great praise, but it is important to remember that these are Holocaust-deniers, they deny the obvious, so it is hardly surprising that they can construe a film in any way they choose." Zundel and Irving are both interviewed, the transcript of the latter's interview having been used in evidence at the recent libel trial.

Morris points to one of the similarities between the perception of Irving and Leuchter: "Irving was criticised for straying beyond his area of expertise, as Fred was, for having no scientific qualifications and practising engineering without a licence. This idea that credentials protect us from error is a dangerous notion: Fred could have had an advanced degree and he would still have simply been wrong. It's cold comfort to believe that education has the power to prevent such things, when what is truly frightening is people's ability to believe in anything, despite all evidence to the contrary."

Morris revels in this gap between perception and reality; his extraordinary talent is his ability to mirror it in both the form and the content of his films. His new script is the story of a man committed to an asylum for the insane by his parents, for having "writing mania". It sounds perfect Morris territory - after all, this is the director whose production company, Fourth Floor, is to be found on the fifth, and who refers to the stuffed rat on his desk as the managing director.

Hopefully, his change of direction will bring Morris back to a wider audience. It should at least save him from the vagaries of Sheffield. Three years ago, after the Q&A session that followed his screening of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, he was punched in the eye on his way back to his hotel. Even that he finds amusing: "I like to think it was someone from the screening taking issue with me." Crazy American!

'True Stories: Mr Death', C4, Monday, 9pm