In Errol Morris’ films, truth is always stranger than fiction, and his real-life characters are more unbelievable than anything one could invent.

But in his latest “non-fiction feature,” Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., he presents an eccentric with more dangerous tendencies: an obsession with death and execution that leads him to claim that the Holocaust is a lie. MARCY GOLDBERG caught the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, and spoke with its director.

Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is a funny-looking middle-aged man with thick glasses, buck teeth, and a geeky sense of humour. He also is – or rather, was – a self-taught “execution technician,” designing and servicing electric chairs, gallows and other lethal machinery for those American states where the death penalty is still carried out. Leuchter’s career was motivated by a lifetime obsession with death and technology, but also by the belief that capital punishment should be “humane”. But his life took a strange turn when he was asked to testify as a defence witness at the trial of Ernst Zundel, a German-born Canadian charged with disseminating hatred through his self-published pamphlets, such as “The Hitler We Loved and Why” and “Did Six Million Really Die?”

By his own account, Fred was the only possible “expert” who could be called to testify, since the US is the only country in the world that maintains gas chambers for executions. Recently married to a waitress from his favourite coffee shop, he spent his honeymoon at Auschwitz gathering samples for his own tests on whether functioning gas chambers could have ever existed there. He confused the gas chamber with the crematorium, didn’t consult any blueprints on the camp’s design, and ignored the fact that many buildings had been knocked down and rebuilt. He gave the wrong instructions to the chemistry lab hired to analyse the samples he stole from the site. But when he didn’t find any traces of cyanide anywhere, he concluded that the Holocaust was a lie. The publication of his “Leuchter Report” brought him recognition in neo-Nazi circles, but ultimately led to his downfall. As his activities as a Holocaust denier brought him into the spotlight, his clients boycotted him, his business failed, and his wife left him. At the end of the film he sits in a seedy hotel room, telling Errol Morris about his hard times – and still defending his theories…

Like the characters in Morris’ Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Fred Leuchter believes that his fascination with technology will help build a better world. So where did things go wrong? It is a great achievement of the film that it doesn’t demonise Fred: it offers an insightful portrait of the man, while at the same time making it clear that his theories are complete hogwash. Morris was less interested in debunking Fred’s theories than in examining how and why he could have developed these beliefs. Some critics have argued that the film does not go far enough in responding to the claims of the so-called “revisionists” who deny the Holocaust. But Morris has wisely chosen not to debate these people; instead, he reveals the bad logic on which their arguments are based and the vanity and self-deception that carry them along.

Using an interview machine called the “Interrotron,” Morris was able to get startlingly direct statements on film, not only from Fred, but from his supporters: the hate-mongerer Zundel, and the notorious British “revisionist” historian David Irving. Combined with the vivid visuals and intricate editing that Morris is known for, the result is a gripping film that unfolds like a detective thriller. Fred’s “rise and fall” comes to resemble a Greek tragedy, where pride and lack of self-doubt cause the hero to destroy himself. And we actually do feel sorry for him, knowing all the while that it is his own fault.

Marcy Goldberg: How did you discover “Mr. Death”?

Errol Morris

Errol Morris: Fred interested me before I became aware of his activities as a Holocaust denier. I became aware of him through articles that appeared in the Atlantic and the New York Times in 1990. I had finished the Thin Blue Line not so long before: it came out in 1988. Fred had been described as “Dr. Death” and I had dealt with another Dr. Death in the course of making The Thin Blue Line, namely the Dallas psychiatrist who is asked to provide an expert opinion at the penalty phase of a trial and always says that the man will kill again. So I had more than a passing interest in the story. Of course when I became aware of the Holocaust denial, I became even more interested in the story and more interested in Fred. Because to me there’s the central question: why these two aspects of the story? What was it about his involvement in executions in the United States that led to the role that he eventually played for Ernst Zundel? It struck me as at the very least ironic that this person obsessed, clearly obsessed with death, ended up at the epicentre of death, Auschwitz.

There’s a striking line in the film, when Fred’s wife says: “I found out that he didn’t kill people, he made things that kill people.” That seems like an interesting kind of distinction to make.

It’s a very funny line. One of the issues that fascinates me – and certainly fascinated me during the making of The Thin Blue Line, for example – is the issue of whether people knowingly do evil. Is the world populated by villains who knowingly do evil things, or are truly evil things done by people like you and me? And in particular, are they done by people who have somehow justified to themselves that the evil that they’re doing isn’t really evil at all, but maybe even good?

I would have these discussions with my editor when we were working on The Thin Blue Line and he would say, “Of course the Dallas police must have known that they were framing an innocent man.” I never believed that. I believe that people are able to convince themselves of almost anything. You know, the whole idea that believing is seeing, and not the other way around.

As soon as Fred started describing his work as an “execution expert” he reminded me of the Nazis. I thought of Adolf Eichmann describing his duties during his trial in Jerusalem, as he appears in Eyal Sivan’s film The Specialist.

I never set out to make a literal comparison between Fred and the Nazis. It’s not clear what we even mean when we call someone a Nazi in the 1990s. I sometimes call him the “accidental Nazi.” Fred has never said anything even remotely anti-Semitic to me. But he and some of the other characters collected in the film – Ernst Zundel, and [the revisionist historian] David Irving – certainly make me think about the forces and the mindset that produced the Holocaust.

I believe that the Holocaust is the central mystery of the 20th century. The question is not “Did it happen?” – it did – but “How could it happen?” How people saw themselves, what they thought they were doing, is to me a central question.

With Fred it becomes really tortured at Auschwitz, when he seems to hint that he knows this is a terrible place, although he insists these things didn’t happen there. He says that the Germans couldn’t have really done it because they didn’t have the expertise – that he would have been the one to do it, he would have been the person to actually design the best means of killing people. It’s very twisted and strange.

Were you worried that people who see the film might be convinced by Fred’s theories?

In the film you see him roaming around Auschwitz with his hammer and chisel, and what do we know about the place? We know that the Germans burned records. We know that they removed hardware from the crematoria and then dynamited the buildings before abandoning Auschwitz in January of 1945. We know that they sanitised the documents that they produced to make no reference to what they actually were doing. We know that when Fred did these tests, the site had been exposed to wind, ground water, rain, for over 40 years. We know that the walls were covered with plaster and the plaster is now gone. We learn from [architecture historian] van Pelt that a very large percentage of the bricks from the crematoria are gone altogether and were used in postwar reconstruction around the camp. And the list goes on and on. And if that’s not enough, then you hear Roth, the chemist, say that the test was the wrong test, because cyanide is a surface reaction and it only penetrates to a depth of several microns, and Fred took the samples in such a way that clearly the cyanide content would be diluted to insignificance. And I think, how crazy, how sad, how pathetic. How ridiculous.

I did feel sorry for Fred after his “fall.” At the beginning of the film he appears as a confident and successful businessman, and in the end there he is in that sad hotel room. There is something very human about it, which is also disturbing.

Actually, after the first interview even worse things happened to him, but they were never really part of the film because the story was complicated enough already. There’s a whole story about how he was incarcerated in Germany. It’s against the law in Germany to publicly say that the Holocaust did not happen, and so he was arrested and held in prison for a substantial period of time. So things did go from bad to worse.

Of course, the easy way out is to just make him into a demon. I think it makes the film far more disturbing to actually treat him as a person. And I certainly hope that people don’t confuse that treatment with my belief that what he did was a good thing, because I most certainly do not feel that way at all! Quite the contrary.

Has Fred seen the film? What did he think of it?

Yes. Fred was shown the film before it went to Sundance. I felt it was important for him to at least see the movie and tell me what he thought about it. Fred liked the film. He was by no means convinced by the movie that he was wrong. I actually went through a long list with him of reasons why I thought he was wrong – and he didn’t buy them.

Mr. Death, *like all of your films, is billed as a “non-fiction feature.” Do you purposely avoid using the word “documentary”?

Well, I have problems with the word “documentary” because I think what I do is actually quite different from other documentaries. I think that there are certain elements of reality, documentary elements in what I do, but the movies work in a different way. They’re much closer to scripted movies in the sense that the visuals, what you see in the movies, is often stuff that I’ve constructed.

The script for all of my movies is taken from what people say. They’re not really interviews. You may feel my presence in the editing and in many other ways in the films, but still the intention in the interview process is to get monologues, to get a form of storytelling which is first-person storytelling. And then having taken that material and editing it into a kind of script, I then create visuals to go with it, trying to enter into how people see the world.

So if I have this antipathy to the word “documentary” I think it’s because it doesn’t capture that something different is going on here. It makes the films sound far more “journalistic” or objective in character than they in fact are. And I’ve been in the unusual position where all of my films have gone into theatrical release in the United States and Canada, every single one of them. And I think the reason for that in part is because they work as movies.

But in this case especially, the question of truth is very important…

There’s clearly a journalistic component in this film, but there’s also an attempt to enter into how someone else sees the world. I’m more interested in the question of how Fred sees himself, than the question of whether he is right or wrong. If only for the simple reason that to me it’s clear he’s wrong. I mean, that’s the premise that the whole movie is built on. But given that he’s wrong, how is it that he is able to entertain these beliefs? How does he sell this to himself successfully? I’m a little hesitant to talk about all these areas involving the Holocaust, because I think at root this is not a movie about the Holocaust, this is a movie about Fred and about his attempt to come to terms with who he is and what he’s doing.