The Director's Chair Interviews

Errol Morris and the Accidental Nazi
by Anthony Kaufman

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"Sick, sad and funny," says Errol Morris, are the three ingredients of his films. And his latest work, the tentatively titled, "Mr. Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." fits each of these descriptors to a "T." Morris found Leuchter in 1992 at the same time he was documenting his subjects from "Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control" (Sundance '98). Leuchter is the kind of little man that looks alternatingly pathetic and evil, a sort of Walter Mitty with a macabre edge. Leuchter, an execution specialist and coffee-addict, has designed everything from electric chairs and lethal injection machines to top-of-the-line gallows and gas chambers for many of our great United States. He also travelled to the concentration camps at Auschwitz, took forensic tests, and testified that the Holocaust never happened. This once haunting little man suddenly exploded into a hero for historical revisionists - and an enemy for everyone else. "An accidental Nazi," says Morris of his latest eccentric subject (the name also serves as a possible title for the film.) Morris is as fascinating and funny as his portraits. His thoughts on the festival reflect this: "I prepare for Sundance by spending 72 hours in a meat locker with five people I dislike, all of whom have cellular phones." And his work has always surpassed the traditional "documentary film" "to create a different kind of genre," he says. "I'm not sure what that genre is, but it's not really the same as documentary." Over scrambled egg beaters and dry rye toast, Morris talks about this first cut, his plans for the next, and the inherent untruth of film.

indieWIRE: What do you get out of going to festivals and interacting with the audiences.

Errol Morris: I enjoy the Q & A's. . . the opportunity to talk about my movies. I've often said that I make movies so I can talk after them. So that part I thoroughly enjoy. It's the opportunity to hear what people think about the movie and respond to questions; it's an opportunity for me to actually think about what I've done.

iW: But in this case, it's interesting specifically, because you're not finished with the movie?

Morris: Yes, then the worry becomes by continuing to edit it do I take something that everybody likes and turn it into something. . . Bad. I don't think that's going to happen, but I was surprised and encouraged by the response to the movie here. If anything, it makes me feel that I have a film. . . . People are engaged by the material, people take the material the way I hope they would take it. The hope is in the story to be thrown into the mystery of personality, who is this man, what is he doing?

iW: How do you feel if people take the movie as simply an effort to debunk Leuchter when there's so much more?

Morris: I think it's important, on one level, to completely debunk him. I have edited different versions of this movie and it's clear you can't have someone expressing these views without providing some answer. You can't allow these views to go unchallenged. So, for better or for worse, that has to be one central element of the movie. But yes, the hope is that people look beyond that. This is not a movie that tries to prove the Holocaust happened; I've never had any reason to doubt that it happened.

iW: When Fred smiles his eerie smile and you catch it and then cut to black, those moments to me are the most powerful debunking of him.

Morris: I think there's something about the smile that captures this idea that Fred doesn't quite get it, that he doesn't understand what he's saying. Even the whole idea of spending your honeymoon in Auschwitz is totally absurd. What could he have been thinking?

iW: The smile is a powerful tool.

Morris: I think the black works well too. . . . The film isn't finished, but I would like to have very few talking heads in the movie. I like to see as little as the other people as possible. It's their voices that are important. I worry about creating confusion; it's important for an audience to know who's who, but having said that, I would like to try to make it as dream-like as possible; it is a kind of danse macabre, a dream of death, an absurd dream of death.

iW: In the new cut, will you try to tone down those other talking heads?

Morris: It's more visuals already, more reenactments, more of everything; it's more of a movie.

iW: And less of a documentary?

Morris: Yes. It's very important, the visual design of what I'm doing -- it's a very big part of the movies. There will be far more reenactments in the final version. I did reenactments with actors in Auschwitz, so there were fake people in the real place and I shot Leuchter in a fake Auschwitz in a studio.

iW: Do you think certain people will have problems with that? People will call it manipulation.

Morris: Damn straight. Film is about manipulation, and the only people who say that it isn't are people who are either lying or don't know better.

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