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MORRIS, ERROL: MR DEATH

His work defies categorisation - even the Oscars organisers canít decide whether his films are documentaries or dramas. Having taken on topics like pet cemeteries, injustice in Texas and quantum physics, Errol Morris is one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic filmmakers working today. In his latest film, Mr Death, he turns his lens to Holocaust denial, an issue too important not to explore, he tells DAVID EDWARDS.

What was it about Fred Leuchter that attracted you to his story?
The seemingly inconsequential figure who manages in his own strange way to embody many of the central themes of the 20th century. (Pauses and smiles) How about that?

Good answer! Talking of 20th century history, do you think the issue of Holocaust denial is one you had to explore? Is it too important not to explore?
I do think itís too important not to explore. Thatís a good way of putting it. Robert Jan Van Pelt in the movie tells us that the Nazis were the first deniers of the Holocaust; something that we may have forgotten about. But itís a line that makes me think... Just stop for a second. The Nazis were the first deniers - what does that mean? Well, it could mean a lot of things. It could mean that they knew what they were doing was bad and they made every effort to hide the fact of what they were doing. In the latter part [of the war] clearly [this was so]; the way records were destroyed; the fact that the crematoria at Birkenau were dynamited as the Nazis retreated; the fact that they used some strange code, some set of euphemisms to describe what they were doing. But it leaves open an even deeper question - did they actually hide from themselves the reality of what they were doing? They tried to imagine, perhaps successfully, that what they were doing was not a crime. Because what is the successor of this scheming? That we live in some strange cocoon that masks the world from view; that even masks ourselves. Because hereís the story of a man who defines himself as an heroic figure, even though what heís involved in is deeply pernicious.

Do you think thereís that same kind of self-denial in the early part of the film when you look at the execution equipment? He [Leuchter] doesnít seem to see it as taking life - itís just levers and buttons and electric currents. He doesnít see it for what it is.
Yeah. (long pause) Thereís this amazing line where Fred says thereís no difference between an execution system and a life support system. I found that extremely stupid! (laughs) He even feels the need to clarify it; as if at the last moment, having said this, he realises there is a distinction to be made - a subtle distinction - and he goes on to say, well if a life support system fails, you die; and if an execution system fails, you live. And thatís the subtle difference - the subtle difference of life and death!

Do you see Mr Death as a companion piece to your earlier film The Thin Blue Line?
Yes. My second essay on false history.

In The Thin Blue Line, quite famously, you examined the injustice of the [Randall Adams] case in Texas. You exposed the lies by showing the truth. In Mr Death, itís almost the reverse - youíre trying to expose the truth by showing the lies.
I think thatís a good way of describing it - avoidance of the truth. And that was the big issue in Dallas. I used to have these arguments with my editor. Weíd talk about the movie, about my investigation of the murder. My editor would say "The Dallas police must have known." And I would always argue "No, I donít think so". But at the crux is this really perplexing issue - doesnít the evidence speak clearly? What is the difference between believing and seeing? I believe the Dallas police genuinely believed he was guilty. I donít think people knowingly try to convict another person. I think itís much uglier, more frightening than that. They convince themselves, quite unwittingly, that theyíre right. And then having convinced themselves everything else follows. I have no doubt they believed he was guilty.

In much the same way as the Holocaust deniers have convinced themselves it didnít happen?
Look at Fredís language [in the film]. He says, when I asked him if he thought he was wrong, "Iíve long since passed that". But then he goes on to say that when he found no residue of cyanide in the brickwork [from Auschwitz], "I made a decision that I was right." You made a decision you were right? But I think having made that decision, there was no going back; no opportunity for revisiting anything.

Do you think he will ever realise heís wrong?
No. I sat down with him and told him all the reasons I thought he was wrong, with no effect. I could see it as a kind of morality play with a sinner who finally realises the error of his ways and begs forgiveness - but thatís a pipe dream. That ainít never gonna happen (laughs). I mean, what does he have to gain by admitting error - very little. But he has a lot to lose, including his own self-respect.

So youíre talking about narcissism?
Well, no one ever mentions it, but narcissism runs through the whole damn movie.

What do you think society should do about Holocaust deniers?
I have many different thoughts on this. First, Iím an American Jew, so I come from my own peculiar set of circumstances. Iím a civil libertarian so I believe in the First Amendment and freedom of speech. But in Germany where it - although weíre separated by more than 50 years from the war - there has to be this fear that to even talk about the Third Reich, let alone Holocaust denial, might lead to it happening again. So how do I, as a civil libertarian, feel about that? Iím not sure. But if the movie makes people think about the Holocaust and about its perpetrators, thatís a good thing.

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