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
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.