Not long ago I saw a documentary film on Adolf Eichmann and was shocked by the sight of him: The smirk, the smile, seemed to yank his mouth nearly off his face. He looked like a boxer undergoing the impact of a right hook, or like a portrait by, of all people, Soutine, in which the suppressed inner life of the subject distorts every feature in its struggle to get out, twisting the mouth so it seems about to devour itself. What so unnerved me was that he looked precisely like the madman I had long since decided he was not.
That is to say, until that moment I had subscribed to the view of Hannah Arendt that Eichmann was essentially a normal man, banal in all his inclinations, and at bottom indistinguishable from the rest of the bourgeoisie whose very respectability the Nazi regime counted on while turning them from good family men into hangmen. All too many people would rather make him a monster, a species apart, and so dissociate themselves from the wickedness in the world; they forget that only those who recognize what they share with the force of evil can hope to fight against it.
Almost certainly, my own sense of human nature, together with my reading of history, had convinced me that evil is well within the repertoire of ordinary men. Why, even science seemed to support me. I refer, of course, to Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority, which describes how an astounding number of perfectly normal Yale students were, with varying degrees of reluctance and enthusiasm (the crucial variant being proximity to the victim), willing to follow the experimenter's order to administer an electrical shock, even when they supposed that the charge might be lethal. Well, I am a Yalie myself, and the fact that Milgram went on to duplicate his results with a wide range of subjects did nothing to dilute the realization that in a lifetime of opportunities and commands one can do little more than hope to find oneself among the minority who refuse to push the button or pull the switch.
Yet the mere glimpse of Eichmann grimacing behind glass undermined all such certainties. Was Hitler a monster and Himmler a fiend? Or is it something like the grace of God, or sheer luck in the experience of life, that saves us from committing the worst of crimes? Search me. After all, this debate has been shaking the earth for as long as people have been thinking and is as far from settled today as when the drifting continent of Christendom ground up against the tectonic plate of Enlightenment. Not surprisingly, the issue has been at the center of Holocaust thought, not only in the controversy surrounding Hannah Arendt and her critics but, most recently, in the distance between Daniel Goldhagen's vision of an entire nation of demonic anti-Semites and Christopher Browning's account of a killing squad, Hamburg Reserve Police Battalion 101, made up of postmasters, tax clerks, and other unremarkable men.
These two ways of looking at evil are also at the center of Errol Morris's latest documentary, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. The story of how Leuchter got caught up in the world of the Holocaust and its deniers is told largely through his own words and those of a handful of others--principally his former wife and stepson; Ernst Zündel and David Irving, more professional Holocaust revisionists; and Robert Jan van Pelt, the eminent Auschwitz historian. This slow recital, undeflected, with neither coloring nor commentary is, in the technique long since perfected by Fred Wiseman and Morris himself, meant to hoist the unknowing speaker by what I shall dare to call his own patois.
Our first glimpse of Leuchter, ominously lit from below or in scary silhouette, occurs while the titles roll: The screen flashes light and dark as electrical sparks arc and crackle; transformers loom high above; cables, wires, grids, circuits stretch off in all directions; and the music thumps and pulses in what I take to be a parody of the scores of those serials that filled the theaters toward the middle of what is suddenly the last century. Then from all this Frankenstein imagery there emerges--well, Fred. Not a monster but, with his ill-fitting clothes, thick plastic glasses, and nervous half-smile, a mouse.
What he tells us is how, once he realized how cruelly prisoners were being executed--heads bursting into flame, eyeballs shooting across the room, urine and feces spilling over the floor--he set about devising a more efficient and humane electric chair. Soon state after state was seeking his services, not only for electrocutions but for lethal injections and even a gas chamber. It was his endeavors in the last field that brought him to the attention of Zündel, on trial in Canada for deliberately spreading false information intended to incite racial hatred. (To hell with the ACLU; would that there were such a law beneath the 49th parallel.) The information was that no Jews had been killed at Auschwitz and that the Holocaust was a hoax. If Leuchter could prove that there was no residue of cyanide in the brickwork of the gas chambers, Zündel, or so he reasoned, would have to be freed.
Fred and his new bride went to Oswiecim, chipped pieces of mortar from the ruins of the chambers, and smuggled the samples to the United States. There an independent lab could not produce the chemical reaction that would have indicated the presence of prussic acid. As it happened, Zündel was found guilty. He is happily awaiting his appeal--his happiness entirely based upon Leuchter's findings, which, while not admitted into evidence, became everywhere the keystone in the arch of Holocaust revisionism. Almost immediately Leuchter and his report were celebrated in both hemispheres--a lionization to which Leuchter all too eagerly lent himself and which, with the attendant protests and publicity, soon led to his downfall: loss of spouse, employment, and all further prospects save a persistent entanglement among those forces that with increasing stubbornness and self-regard he still refuses to recognize as evil.
I am sorry to have to say that I do not regard Mr. Death as a successful work of art. It takes the viewer no more than three or four minutes to realize that he is going to spend the next hour and a half in the company of a perfect fool. True, there are occasional flashes of an inner life--the sudden smile that appears on the lips of this decidedly non-Yale man as he pushes the button on an electric chair; an addiction to caffeine; a buried past that includes sitting in an electric chair as the child of a father who worked in prisons; and a need for adulation so deep that it forces him to abandon whatever principles he'd had as a disinterested dabbler in science. But they are only flashes, and through the course of the film there emerges no deeper portrait either of the monster suggested during the titles or of the simple and self-deluded man.
I do not mean to suggest that Mr. Death is flawed because it does not resolve the nature of evil. The flaw is that the film is not engaged by the theme it cannot hope to ignore. The tone throughout is calm, distant, mildly amused, ironic. There is little sense of struggle, much less of the self-doubt or anguish that the very inability to settle such an issue might be thought to inspire.
The crux of the matter is this: Sometimes the deliberate eschewal of a point of view and a commitment to dispassion become irresponsible. Morris does establish that in all likelihood poor Leuchter not only examined the wrong bricks (the right ones, as van Pelt suggests, had been appropriated by local Poles to rebuild their ruined homes and farms), but that even the right ones were broken up in such a way that whatever molecules of Zyklon B remained in the samples could never turn the test tubes a telltale pink. What he does not establish, what he leaves for his audience to discover and his subjects to betray, is the truth. Who is, for example, Robert Jan van Pelt? How can an unsophisticated viewer know with what authority he speaks? Worse, when David Irving appears on the screen, identified only as a "revisionist historian," and tells of his distaste for Leuchter as a man but his complete acceptance of his findings as a scientist, how can that same viewer know that this suave Englishman has been convicted in Germany and France for his denial of the Holocaust and has been banned for the same reasons from countries on three different continents? Believe me, Irving, so cultured and self-assured, is not going to hang himself no matter how many feet of film, or of rope, he is given.
A haphazard morality always and everywhere leads to aesthetic disarray. Early in the film, as counterpoint to Leuchter's talk of executions, we see very old footage of "The Execution of an Elephant." It is a harrowing sight, the collapse of the beast, reminiscent of Orwell's great essay on the same topic. Alas, it is an isolated image, disconnected from any of the other intercutting, which consists mainly of all too familiar pictures of the wires and lights of Auschwitz and of Hitler waving at a crowd that joyously waves back at him. Such editing permits no genuine subtext, thereby mirroring the absence of an inner life in its chief subject. Compare that vacuum to Morris's Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which may well be the most imaginatively edited film ever made. There too the true subject is monsters and men, but in that fine work the connections the director makes between the human and the animal, between the living and the mechanical, as well as the interplay between different vocations and popular culture, demonstrate what may happen when an artist's heart is in his work, just as Mr. Death, when all is said and done, reveals what will inevitably occur when it is not. ¤
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)