Mr. Death (Errol Morris, 1999)

During the last decade or so, there has been a dramatic interest in the documentary film and video, particularly in the postmodern documentary form as it applies to both theory and production. For too long the documentary film has been overshadowed by its cousin – the narrative fiction film – in our audiovisual history. Today there is a tremendous concern with the various forms of nonfiction film and video, especially as it relates to the new self-reflexive documentary (including the camera-stylo inflected forms of the “essay film” and the self-portrait) and reality TV programming, which is more specifically addressed to the current post-MTV generation of spectator-consumers.

Clearly, as previous commentators including Michael Renov, Bill Nicholls, Trinh T.Minh-ha and Linda Williams, amongst others, have stated, this highly visible explosion of interest in the documentary in the context of post-structuralist thought and practice exhibits a multifaceted concern with the ontological status of the image- “the persistence of the real” – in postmodernism, the complex dynamic interface between fact and fiction, and the significance of historical discourse on film. (1)

This year’s Sydney Film Festival (9-23 June) attested to the recent popularity of the nonfiction film in our everyday culture with its numerous documentary films from various different cultural and generic contexts and traditions including the most recent effort by the American documentarian Errol Morris, Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A.Leuchter, Jr. (1999). What I wish to do here is to discuss Morris’s self-reflexive documentary practice in terms of recent Anglo-American documentary theory, policy and production, in relation to Mr Death and another documentary from the festival that deals with Morris’ art and life – Kevin Macdonald’s homage titled A Brief History Of Errol Morris (1999).

So far Morris has directed five documentary features and a television series (Errol Morris: Interrotron Stories [1995]) that all can be said to exempify the ironic, reflexive, multilayered concerns and stylistics of the so-called new documentary. (2) The films are Gates of Heaven (1978), Vernon, Florida (1981), The Thin Blue Line ( 1988), A Brief History of Time (1992), and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997). Morris’ oeuvre is recognisable for its bizarre, banal and ritualistic configurations of human behaviour and obsessions and its non-directive “talking-cure” interview techniques where human subjects reveal themselves and their fantasies to the filmmaker’s camera. Moreover, as Werner Herzog testifies in Les Blank’s short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), which accompanied Macdonald’s entertainingly informative film at the festival, Morris has a gifted ability to select a locale where its eccentric inhabitants in their prosaic everydayness will candidly talk to Morris about their lives, thereby creating strange, riveting stories central to his intrusive, reflexive documentary style of filmmaking. In order to achieve his creative ends, Morris will move to his chosen filmic habitat and become familiar with his talking subjects. Herzog’s Stroszek (1977) utilised Morris’s eye for such weird landscape and obsessed marginal characters, including a fun-fair surreal dancing chicken that is featured in Macdonald’s film.

Morris, a former philosophy graduate student, who spent his university days at the Pacific Film Archives often arguing with curator-producer Tom Luddy over film programs, spent two years working as a private detectve between the making of Vernon, Florida and his critically acclaimed “breakthrough” film The Thin Blue Line. This occupation helped him to sharpen his ” forensic” capacity to evaluate evidence, to put fragments of a narrative together. (At one stage in his career, Morris tellingly called himself “director- detective” instead of the customary “writer-director”.) In short, Morris’ considerable epistemological talent to interrogate language and reality, to investigate the explicit truth claims of documentary filmmaking, and to appreciate how people reveal themselves through how they speak, lies at the fore of his art.

What motivates Morris as a new doco-auteur is his major interest in the naive and appalling, an interest which centres around mass murderers – one of his obsessions – such as the grave robber turned murderer Ed Gein, who Morris befriended in the late 1960s, and the Californian serial kiler Ed Kemper. Morris’s view of the documentary as a carefully constructed critique of the limits of the real suggests, as Williams eloquently puts it, “an intervention in the politics and semiotics of representation.” (3) Williams’s perceptive analysis of The Thin Blue Line illuminates the aesthetic and philosophical complexities of the new documentary by arguing that it contests the prevailing dichotomy between truth and fiction that is said to be at the root of truth in the form, by advocating that it is not a simple choice between truth or fiction but rather a choice of formulating certain strategies of fiction to reach relative truths. This signifies, time and again, as we observe in Morris’ riveting films, contra Jameson’s definition of the cultural logic of the postmodern condition residing in a new depthlessness of the image and the attendant weakening of historicity, Morris’ preoccupation with the recontextualisation of the present in terms of the reveberations and the repetitions of the past. For Morris, truth is not guaranteed by anything. Neither by style nor expression. (4) It is a question of hermeneutic strategy : lies can only be exposed if truths are strategically deployed against them.

Consequently, Morris’s thickly visual, dense films employ dramatic reconstructions to not only examine the limits of historical narration and issues of criminal evidence, but to test the elusive, slippery nature of memory. Morris is drawn to murder cases for these obvious reasons and, as Shawn Rosenheim argues, creates his “mini-dramas” as “ironic commentaries” on his narrators whose own explanations of past events may contain lies mediated by the American media machine and may be just one viable interpretation, amongst others, to explain an event. (5)

His films, as illustrated in the Macdonald documentary, quintessentially depict driven, marginalised characters whose lives and interests become increasingly captivating for the spectator. Both Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida respectively explore two pet cemetries and a community of eccentric swamp-dwellers. The Thin Blue Line is arguably the filmmaker’s archetypal film, in that it investigates the undecidabilities of law and justice and representation as defined by focusing on certain events and their documentary representations. It investigates the case of Randall Adams, a Texan out-of-town worker, who is wrongly accused of murder. A Brief History of Time deals with Stephen Hawking’s international best-selling book about the origins of the universe . And Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, a film whose early editing attempts provided numerous problems for the filmmaker as he strayed from his underlying basic theme of how language conceals fanatasies and obsessions, is a study of a topiary gardener, a lion tamer, a mole rat researcher and a robot scientist.

With Mr Death we have a typical Morris character at the centre of the film’s multilayered formal and thematic architecture and semi-tragic story: an eccentric, diminuitive bespectacled man, who drinks forty cups of coffee a day, Fred A. Leuchter, an engineer from Massachusetts, who designs (for humanitarian reasons!) electric chairs, gallows, lethal injection systems, and who repairs gas chambers. As a “death row” technologist, Leuchter is an expert whose work takes him across America and eventually his world crumbles when he becomes affiliated in 1998 with the neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel and the Holocaust denial movement.

Zundel commissions Leuchter to travel to Auschwitz to “illegally” take brick and mortar samples for chemical analysis to “prove” that the Holocaust did not take place. Leuchter’s surreal folly to conduct a “forensic” investigation of the death camp site – something beyond his so-called expertise and intellectual and moral comprehension – is meant to be the crowning achievement of his career but predictably becomes his cruel, ironic downfall. Morris’s unprecedented ability to find an engrossing documentary subject is undeniably evident throughout his oeuvre, not least in Mr Death, with his choice of Leuchter telling his life-narrative to Morris’ camera.

We see Leuchter in numerous wintry landscape images of Auschwitz as he goes about his business in the chilly silence of the site (echoing Alain Resnais’s fluid contemplative camera gliding across the austere landscape of deserted barracks, barbed wire and the rusted railway tracks of the death camps in his haunting 32 minute documentary Night and Fog [1955]) taking his samples by stealth to prove that what surrounds him is something entirely unrelated to the Holocaust. Leuchter is a tragically misguided person unable to engage in irony, metaphor and self-analysis. In Mr Death we have an engrossing, complex portrait of Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the banality of evil as it applied to the Holocaust. Leuchter’s pathos, his infallibility, are acutely depicted in several scenes where his wife abandons him, he gets locked out of his motel apartment, and he is stranded in California walking along a busy highway, suggesting someone who is totally absorbed in his bizarre occupation and is unwilling to examine its ethical consequences. This is ironically demonstrated in one of the film’s most powerful, surreal scenes where Leuchter straps himself in his own execution chair.

While the absurd, historical revisions of the Holocaust made by Leuchter are negated by Morris as the film unfolds, he is more interested in trying to understand Leucther’s personality, his motives, who this delusional man is. Morris’ project is to endeavour to plumb the ephemeral nature of Leuchter’s identity. Is Leuchter an anti-Semite? A fool? Is he evil? Is he simply misguided? These are the questions, as Morris informed Rex Doane, that guided his documentary on a more basic level of representation. (6) Criticised for not getting a sense of closure on Leuchter’s personality and world, Morris contends that it is extremely difficult to get closure on the fundamental metaphysical question: Who is this man? Morris’s honesty is germane also to the complex “essayistic”/fictional character of his particular documentary style of filmmaking. According to Morris, there is no single event in Leuchter’s life that could singularly explain the mystery of his behaviour and personality. Life is too complex and evanescent, Morris attests, to provide closure in a documentary about someone’s identity and deeds. (7)

Leuchter’s childhood is evocatively represented by the subtle collage use of archival footage of prisons, death rows, prison guards and executions. We appreciate the particular law-and-order ethos that Leuchter was raised in and which shaped his life-long interest in creating and perfecting execution technologies. These archival images have a strong lyrical quality to them suggestive of the tabloid culture and visual iconogography of crime films and novels of the last century.

As a postmodern documentarian, Morris’s intricate, stylistically embellished confessional films are controversial for documentary film purists because of their inventive deployment of rich, ironic visual material and techniques which critique the cinema vérité orthodoxies of the ’60s and after: dramatic reenactments, high tech studio interviews, found footage, staged shots, slow motion and news footage. What also gives Morris’ films their postmodern character – as we clearly see in Mr Death and in the many different clips from his work in A Brief History of Errol Morris – is their reflexive authorial play between allusions, references and a variety of different camera angles including panning, dutching and tilting.

It is important to note that Morris’s gripping reenactments are not constructed to illustrate what the filmmaker may believe the world is, but rather they illustrate how images themselves don’t embody truth. In Morris’s own words “They’re illustrations of lies. They’re all ironic.” (8) In this context, Morris’ stylized reenactments in association with his visually dramatic interviews conducted with his interview device the Interrotron substantially contribute to his unique approach to nonfiction filmmaking.

The Interrotron, which we see in A Brief History of Errol Morris and was first used in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, is essentially a series of modified telepromptors which allow Morris’ subjects to look directly into the lens of the camera rather than focus off one side of the camera at the interviewer. For Morris, this device which allows the interviewer and the interviewee to stare at each other down along the central axis of the lens is the “birth of true-person cinema”. (9) This device also graphically intensifies on-camera interviews as we see with Leuchter’s noirish-lit face, in so many different interview scenes, that with every slight turn of his face it acquires another dramatic, surreal quality to it.

Morris’ non-judgemental role as a non-threatening listener signifies, as we see in both documentaries, a refusal to fix the “truth” that is central to the filmmaker’s cardinal belief that one should not have any preconceived ideas about their interviewees as cinema is unnable to represent any historical reality fairly and accurately. In this sense, Morris’ films essentially qualify, in terms of Nicholl’s typology of documentary modes, as belonging to the “reflexive” category. (10) Films can’t reveal the truth of events, so Morris believes according to Williams, as all we can do as filmmakers is to explore competing master fictional narratives that we use in order to make sense of the events that shape our lives. (11).

Mr Death’s biographically based mise en scène, featuring Leuchter’s self-deceptive lifeworld, comments on the complex intersections between culture, genocide, penology and technology. It is a disturbing and provocative documentary that typifies Morris’s self-questioning view of the world where all of us are located in our own private dramas and fantasy protects us from the more threatening aspects of the world itself. What shines through Mr Death and A Brief History of Errol Morris is Morris’ energetic interest in people and their stories. Morris’ strong, idiosyncratic ideas about nonfiction film and film music are respectively registered in Luddy’s and minimalist composer Philip Glass’ testimonials in the Macdonald documentary. In fact, according to Glass, Morris was virtually camped outside his hotel apartment refusing to go away unless Glass would have another look at a finished film score that Morris had commissioned him to do and was not entirely happy with.

Relatedly, Morris’s unyielding ambition to create his films is also verified by Herzog in Blank’s short, where we see Herzog eating his shoe as he said he would do when and if Morris would complete his first film. Herzog admires Morris’ refusal to join a “culture of complaint” and attests to the documentarian’s pragmatic tenacity to create his inventive nonfiction cinema.

The epistemological skepticism of Mr Death questions the more traditional style and techniques of most documentary practice that claim to define a version of the real as unmediated truth. These techniques, customary of the more popular Griersonian mode of documentary filmmaking, are seen by Morris and other new documentarians like Chris Maker, Marcel Ophüls, Ross McElwee, Claude Lanzmann, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Chris Choy and Renee Tajima, amongst others, as illusory conventions integral to the overall mystique of documentary’s supposed objective truth. In a word, Mr Death magnifies the ideological fictions of traditional “realist” documentaries. Morris’ own documentary practice acutely exemplifies Minh-ha’s following, Franju-inspired observation about reflexive nonfiction cinema: “A documentary aware of its own artifice is one that remains sensitive to the flow between fact and fiction. It does not work to conceal or exclude what is normalised as ‘non-factual’, for it understands the mutual dependence of realism and ‘artificiality’ in the process of filmmaking. It recognizes the necessity of composing (on) life in living it or making it.” (12)

Both Mr Death and A Brief History of Errol Morris suggest the increasing importance of Morris as one of the more challenging new documentarians working today. Morris’ unique approach to the dominant assumptions, concerns and style of postmodern documentary filmmaking reflects an aesthetic, cultural and philosophical restlessness that seeks to question the foundational beliefs and myths of official culture. Morris’ own screen persona – another significant feature of the new documentary – is suggestive of an inventive risk-taker who wishes to question the received wisdom of his artform.


  1. The relevant respective sources here are : (a) Michael Renov, Theorizing Documentary, New York, Routledge, 1993 (b) Bill Nichols, Representing Reality, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1991 (c) Trinh T. Minh-ha, “The Totalizing Quest for Meaning,” in Renov, op.cit. and (d) Linda Williams, ” iMirrors without Memories,” in Barry Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski (eds), Documenting the Documentary, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1998, pp.379-396.
  2. For information on Morris’s TV series “Errol Morris: Interrotron Stories” (1995) refer to Shawn Rosenheim, “Interrotroning History,” in Vivian Sobchack (ed), The Persistence of History, New York, Routledge, 1996, pp.219-234.
  3. Williams, op. cit., p.393.
  4. Cited in Williams ibid. p.384.
  5. Rosenheim, op. cit., p.228.
  6. Rex Doane, “A Conversation with Errol Morris,” Salon, Jan. 29 2000; URL : http://www.salon.com/people/feature/2000/01/29morris.
  7. ibid. p.3.
  8. ibid. p.4.
  9. Rosenheim, op. cit., p.221.
  10. Nichols’ typology of documentary modes are summarised in Matthew Bernstein, “Documentaphobia and Mixed Modes,” in Grant and Sloniowski , op. cit., pp 398-401. For the original Nichols source see footnote 1 (b). It is critical to note that Nichols’s four modes of documentary (expository/observational/ “interactive”/ reflexive) have many variations within each one of them. And the four modes are also significantly historically and intertextually intertwined.
  11. Williams. op.cit., p.385.
  12. Minh-ha, op.cit., p.99.

About The Author

John Conomos is an Associate Professor at the Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. He is an artist, critic and writer and his books include Mutant Media(2008) and two co-edited anthologies (with Professor Brad Buckley), Republics of Ideas (2001) and Rethinking the Contemporary Art School: the PhD, the Academy and the Artist (2010). He is currently working on a new collection of essays called "The Cinema Century."

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