Riveting 'Mr. Death' provokes thought

This has been a strong year for documentaries, or "nonfiction films," to use a term considered more friendly at the box office.

But varied as they were, most fell into a few categories that have dominated this genre for decades. "American Hollow," about a poor rural family, and "American Movie," about an aspiring horror-film director, are cinma-vrit pictures that seek to capture spontaneous views of life as it happens.

"42 Up," continuing a decades-long film series about a diverse group of British citizens, uses interviews and time-jumping editing to explore its subject. "Buena Vista Social Club" hops between travelogue-type footage and concert performances.

All have their merits, but I'd argue that the year's best nonfiction movie fits into none of these stylistic pigeonholes. "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr." has a distinctive personality for two reasons. One is that its topic - the career of a self-made entrepreneur whose success is based on the darkest sides of human existence - has few precedents to which critics might compare it. The other is that it's directed by Errol Morris, a hugely important American filmmaker whose work has revolutionized nonfiction cinema (Errol Morris talks about his career, page 17).

Morris has won awards and honors, but since he isn't a household name, it's worth recalling his contributions. He became a director in the late 1970s, when nonfiction film had already passed through several stages of evolution.

From the '30s through the '50s, most documentaries were either "educational" or "poetic" in style - explaining a topic with the help of an all-knowing narrator or evoking a subject through impressionistic images and music.

This changed in the '60s, when a general tendency to question authority led to cinma-vrit or "direct cinema," claiming to represent reality in an undiluted form, with no omniscient narrator to coach us into viewing it through a particular set of ideas or preconceptions.

This was a dubious assertion, since all films manipulate their viewers. Still, many people accepted the notion that cinma-vrit presents the unvarnished truth of life.

Morris questioned this view with a vengeance. Rejecting the cinma-vrit conventions that audiences had learned to associate with realism - shaky camera work, jumpy editing, grainy film - he moved in a radically different direction.

Rather than catch the "characters" of his films in spur-of-the-moment situations, he interviewed them in well-prepared settings. And breaking the ultimate taboo of the cinma-vrit era, he didn't hesitate to re-create material - complete with unrealistic effects like slow motion and expressive sound.

The result was a series of groundbreaking films. "Gates of Heaven," completed in 1978, explores the world of pet cemeteries so vividly that critic Roger Ebert has called it one of the finest movies ever made. "Vernon, Florida" captures a rural town with a realism that borders on surrealism.

Morris's greatest work, "The Thin Blue Line," reopened a criminal case so incisively that the movie's central figure - a man on death row for murder - was cleared and freed after its release. Subsequent films include "A Brief History of Time," about physicist Stephen Hawking, and "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control," a mind-bending essay interlocking the careers of a lion tamer, a robot designer, a topiary gardener, and the leading authority on a type of African rodent.

"Mr. Death" continues the unique Morris tradition. It focuses on Fred A. Leuchter, a Massachusetts man who went into business as a designer of equipment for capital punishment, seeing himself as a humane individual who could reduce suffering by ensuring the speedy demise of condemned prisoners.

In the late '80s, he was hired as an expert witness in the Canadian trial of a German publisher charged with spreading false information about the Nazi era.

Leuchter rose to this challenge by making the incredible argument that Jews and other Holocaust victims could not possibly have perished in gas chambers.

From here Leuchter became a full-fledged member of the "Holocaust denial" movement, writing and lecturing against the reality of the 20th century's most horrific crimes.

"Mr. Death" treats Leuchter with more dignity than Leuchter allows Holocaust victims. While another filmmaker might have used cinma-vrit spontaneity to catch him in unguarded moments, Morris lets Leuchter present himself to the camera in a straightforward manner.

This makes "Mr. Death" a riveting movie. What makes it an important one is the concern that lies below its surface: the fascination with death that subtly pervades our supposedly civilized society. We live in a world that still harbors a multitude of problems and a multitude of solutions (such as capital punishment) that some consider just as bad.

By connecting two forms of state-sanctioned killing - the Holocaust and capital punishment - Morris does not argue that they are equivalent or even similar to each other, but he does call attention to a contemporary affinity with death that most of us don't like to think about too deeply. While his film isn't the cheeriest way to usher in the new year, moviegoers aren't likely to find a more stimulating and thought-provoking picture.

*Rated PG-13; contains adult subject matter.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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