Errol Morris’s Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is a documentary made in 1999 that focuses on a designer of execution equipment, Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. It is notable that when filming Mr. Death—specifically, in interviews with Leuchter—Morris used a self-designed system that he calls the Interrotron (a combination of the words “interview” and “terror”). My primary interest lies in how apparatuses—the execution equipment that Leuchter designs, the Interrotron that Morris uses to film Leuchter, and cinema—come to function prosthetically.
I argue that the apparatus as a prosthetic extension of the body operates socially, spatially, and temporally. The operation of the apparatus—execution equipment and cinematic apparatus—implies a relation of responsibility between bodies. The apparatus works spatially by instituting relations of connection and distance on a physical level between executioner, electric chair, and criminal, as well as filmmaker, camera apparatus, and interviewee. The specificity of the temporality of the apparatus is evidenced in its promotion of death (execution equipment) and the assistance it gives to our efforts to understand our very own relationship to death as spectators of film (cinematic apparatus). I contend that it is not only that the apparatus operates as a prosthesis in the production of cinema, but that cinema itself is a prosthesis of film spectatorship.
The social, spatial, and temporal extension that the cinematic apparatus affords the body is that of a “supplement” (Stiegler 245). The character/subject is a component in the cinematic arrangement made extensive through “supplements”. However, the Interrotron as a prosthesis, acts as an extension of the body, but one by which the camera or the projected film are not positions that we may identify. My primary interest is the position of the character/subject within the apparatus and how the apparatus comes to function prosthetically. Although here, what I am also concerned with is how the symbolic features of the apparatus work through the fictional narratives of the subject’s life and thus play a formative role in the subject’s perception of him/herself.
Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. and the Electric Chair
The character at the centre of Morris’s Mr. Death is Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (a.k.a. Mr. Death), a self-taught engineer from Massachusetts who designs and builds electric chairs, lethal-injection equipment, gallows, and gas chambers. The narrative of the film follows the progress of his business as he is commissioned to work on each type of execution device. However, his career is put in question after being assigned by Ernst Zündel, Holocaust Revisionist and author of the pamphlet “Did Six Million Really Die?” to determine whether the buildings in Auschwitz were used to house gas executions. This assignment leads Leuchter to write “The Leuchter Report”: a document that denounces the existence of the gas chambers, given the lack of evidence of exhaust equipment, gasket seals, and hydrogen-cyanide residue in the brickwork (tested from bricks taken illegally from the site). Although this latter evidence is the defining point of the report, it is proven insubstantial by James Roth, the chemist commissioned to analyse the brick samples. It is the folly of Leuchter’s pursuit of the investigation that marks the irony of what he believes to be the crowning achievement of his career, which instead leads to the demise of it.
Leuchter’s career demise notwithstanding, the impending subject of my investigation of Mr. Death is the relationship he has with the electric chair that he designed for Tennessee’s state prison. The history of electricity seems to find its place amongst the many inventions of the nineteenth-century. This history also displays a fascination with both its life and death giving qualities. While Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is testimony to literature’s curiosity about electricity, others were quick to speculate on the social and scientific benefits that might be gained from its possible life-giving qualities. In 1892, an article in The Fortnightly Review suggested that electricity could “accelerate the growth of crops”, and in 1912, Svante Arrhenius tested the likelihood of it having the same effect on children (Kern 114).
Death by electricity also seemed to fascinate. In fact, electricity was quite rapidly employed for execution. The electric chair was first used in a New York prison in 1890, a practice that proved to horrify the public—“the New York Times wrote that it had been a “revolting spectacle”, “far worse than hanging” (Kern 115). The Edison Company made an actuality film in 1903 at Luna Park, Coney Island called Electrocuting an Elephant (shown in Mr. Death) that attests to the spectacle or “attraction” that electricity must have been at this time. Fred demonstrates his own fascination with this double quality of electricity when he proclaims:
There is no difference in a life support system and an execution system… With a life support system if it doesn’t function the person dies. With an execution system if it doesn’t function flawlessly the person lives.
There is something banal in this comparison in the way it positions the human body in relation to the machine as though dependent on it, or, in the way it attests to a power that the machine has over life and death, and moreover the way it passes over the distinction between life and death. The lack of difference between the machines that attest to these respective practices is manifest in such indifference to their outcomes. Morris, with regard to this indifference, says:
Fred […] seems possessed by this notion of a “painless execution.” I’m using Fred’s words. But exactly what is he talking about: “the perfect execution that just feels delightful”? I think he misses the point. The real pain of execution is in the knowledge that you are to die, in that realization that we’re mortal and that some date has been fixed for our extinction, for the termination of our lives. And it’s that implacable fact which he conveniently forgets. There can be no “painless execution” when you know that death is approaching. (Ryan)
I argue that the prosthetic relation of the apparatus to the title character occurs on both a physical and psychical level, but question whether the subject’s apparatus represents them adequately. This question of representation is assessed by the film techniques Errol Morris employs in Mr. Death. What interests Morris about Leuchter beyond his involvement with killing machines, beyond the fact that he is a designer of death equipment, is Leuchter’s self-deception. But also the way in which this is revealed by Leuchter himself as he speaks to the camera. It is what Leuchter shows us of himself, the position he places himself in relation to us (or perhaps, more particularly, the camera) that is fascinating. As Morris says:
Mr. Death has the far more interesting thesis that any man can think he’s a hero. Because Fred, in fact, does think he is a truly heroic character. He thinks he’s a Florence Nightingale figure, a champion of civil liberties, a defender of the underdog, a Galileo-like scientist who’s willing to go against the crowd and to espouse unpopular beliefs because he deeply believes they’re right. A humanitarian, a humanist. I mean, it’s a whole catalogue of virtue but what’s so appalling and, at the same time, sad and ludicrous about his story is that it’s wrong. (Ryan)
What is revealed in this film then, is not only our relationship with our apparatuses, and the way in which they place us in turn in relation to people, but also how apparatuses play a formative role in people’s perception of themselves. The fact that a certain type of apparatus may exemplify a perception that people wish to have of themselves or their society is what Lisa Gitelman examines in the suggestions for possible inventions that made their way into letters to Thomas A. Edison. One man wrote in 1915: “My mind has been impressed for some time with the idea of a clock that would speak the time” (82). And yet, a phonograph-clock had already been invented and placed on the market in Europe several years earlier. Edison himself had the idea as early as November 1877. As Gitelman writes of the phonograph-clock idea: “The continued recurrence of the phonograph-clock as a ‘new’ idea confirms that the cultural saturation of technological knowledge was a matter of preconscious as well as conscious mentality. That is, many people came up with the same thing at the same time because the idea of the phonograph-clock percolated within the ambient culture” (83). The question is not only how apparatuses exist within the preconscious and consciousness as a cultural entity, but also, how a talking-clock acts as a mechanical extension of the human subject. As Gitelman writes: “The very idea of a “talking machine” seemed impossible, the term an oxymoron. It denoted a contradictory combination of biological and mechanical function, a nineteenth-century cyborg” (84). For Leuchter then, the question is: what is it that the execution apparatus says about him?
Errol Morris and the Interrotron
It is also the device by which Leuchter reveals his opinions that in important. When filming Mr. Death, Morris used the Interrotron. The Interrotron is made up of a two-way camera set-up linked to teleprompters that at once project the image of Morris’s face to Leuchter and similarly, the image of Leuchter’s face to Morris. Behind the teleprompters (or more precisely, behind a two-way mirror that reflects the image of the teleprompter towards each person) are cameras, each fitted with a fixed lens. The result is that, rather than having the conversation taking place off to the side of the camera, both interviewer and interviewee can look directly at each other down the central axis of the camera lens (Rosenheim 221). As Leuchter speaks to the projected image (mirror) of Morris, the film camera behind the mirror gains direct eye contact with him and films him in this way. Conversely, a video camera films Morris’s face, an image which is directed to Leuchter through the teleprompter to the mirror facing him.
The Interrotron does generate, Morris claims, better documentary techniques, not only because of the startling intensification of on-camera interviews and the feeling that is generated by the interviewee staring down the lens at interviewer and also the spectator. It also produces more information from the subject, evidenced by the fact that Leuchter spoke for twelve uninterrupted hours to the interview machine. Despite Leuchter’s ability for monologue, it does not seem that Leuchter knows himself any better. In fact, his delusion is one that is propagated by speaking for twelve hours to someone, to the world. However, it seems that Leuchter will never know his own delusion. The effect of the Interrotron on Leuchter is that it produces a projection/image that will listen with no interruptions. Precisely because, in the end, the projections reflect back the image of the person talking, it is all about Leuchter, rather than who he is talking to. As Morris says:
I think we are all protected from the world by fantasy. We all see ourselves as being protagonists in a private drama of our own construction. I don’t think that any of us are immune from that sort of thing, I think it’s the human condition. It is really just trying to capture some of that, that is what interests me.
A key idea that is presented by Leuchter in Mr. Death is the spatial distance between executioner and executee—even as there is connection between machine and victim—that tends towards anonymity. As Leuchter says in describing the way in which he became involved in designing a lethal-injection machine:
They determined that there should be some kind of a machine that could repetitively deliver the necessary chemicals at the proper time intervals for all executions. This completely took the human factor out of it.
This gives us some idea of the way in which machines tend to determine a distance, or anonymity, to the killing process. A characteristic of the spectator’s relationship to cinema is anonymity, however, it is an anonymity that, along with the “mass characteristics” of cinema and our “solitude in darkness”, creates a kind of “public intimacy” (Moore 5). For the electric chair, the electric current requires the connecting contact of the machine at the same time that this death-giving apparatus affords human distance. The machine provides for a sense of morality in which we view killing as a rational process conducted through technologies. It means that political systems or individuals are not held responsible for these deaths; it is rather as if the machine itself is responsible. Furthermore, it seems the necessity is to make the machine responsible so that the connecting human forces such as the creator of the electric chair, or perhaps even the person who “presses the button”, are free of responsibility. This question of responsibility is ironic in light of the fact that Leuchter has never himself witnessed an execution. Always at a distance, he relinquishes the machine from sight before it performs its prosecution.
What is most important about spatial distance in Mr. Death is the way in which Morris uses the Interrotron to gain a sense of direct human contact from Leuchter. Morris’s interview machine is a mechanism that at the same time generates a distance (the objectifiable camera), but also allows for a human to human relationship through the camera rather than with the camera as a third party. Consequently, when Walter Benjamin says that, in the case of the audience of film, “the audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera”, or in the case of the actor, “what matters is that the part is acted not for an audience but for a mechanical contrivance”, this is what the Interrotron negates (228–29). The relationship that the audience has is a first-person relationship, where the camera acts as an extension of the human—a prosthesis—and not its own position to identify. Despite the human connection that the Interrotron produces in the absence of the identification with a mechanical device, the audience is never morally implicated because of the spatial and temporal singularity of film.
The Interrotron generates a better human connection to the spectator where Morris becomes a stand-in for the real film spectator. It is through the eyes (in the look) that connection is guaranteed in the case of the Interrotron, just as in cinema. The Interrotron presents us with the closest thing to a two-way communication when Morris’s eyes become the spectators’ eyes; Morris’s eyes act as a prosthesis of the spectator’s eyes through the device of the Interrotron. Indeed, Linda Williams asks of the direct eye contact that the Interrotron allows for: “Does testimony that exhibits a lack of blinking and constant, direct eye contact equate with truth? The Interrotron might seem to invite such a judgement, but the ‘truth’ is not so guaranteed” (37). In fact, the “truth” that we discover is Leuchter’s own self-deception.
Cinema as Prosthesis: Temporal Extension as a “Supplement”
In relation to Mr. Death, the prosthesis as an extension of the self suggests a complexity that emerges when Leuchter describes his relationship to the electric chair:
And so the legend grew that prison officials shouldn’t allow their children to sit in the electric chair. I kind of sat in the chair waiting for something to happen, but some twenty years later I wound up making execution equipment, instead of being the person that the execution equipment was used on […] Maybe we created a new legend and some good came out of it after all.
The apparatus metaphorically generates death for Leuchter—he subjects himself to his own apparatus, metaphorically dies and “create[s] a legend”. And yet, Morris says:
Fred Leuchter’s story seems very much caught up in a denial of death, some crazy denial that death in fact even exists. After all, the movie ends with his story about how he sat in the chair and defeated the legend attached to it: namely, that, if you sit in the chair, you will subsequently die in the chair. And the story and his pride in the fact that he (quote, unquote) “created a new legend”—he didn’t die in the chair but went on to design and manufacture electric chairs—seems to me (to be) Fred boasting in some deep way about how he has defeated death itself. It seems, if you like, the final delusion. (Ryan)
This leaves an interesting question of what is generated by the mechanical cinematic apparatus for the spectator. Cinema is a way to understand our very own relationship to death as spectators of film. Such a relationship to death is dependent upon the “presence” of the mechanical apparatus. Benjamin writes:
What matters is that the part is acted not for an audience but for a mechanical contrivance—in the case of the sound film, for two of them. […] This situation might also be characterized as follows: for the first time—and this is the effect of the film—man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. (229)
However, cinema is not simply the presence of the camera, but the possibility that a past moment in time—a past present—be brought into presence by the film projector. The camera and the projector are prostheses, allowing for a living person in a past present to be brought into an audience’s presence. Death is the “supplement” that these apparatuses afford. Morris’s Interrotron is an extension of this arrangement, while Leuchter’s electric chair is exemplary.
A Brief History of Errol Morris. Dir. Kevin Macdonald. Independent Film Channel, 2000.
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Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.
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Moore, Rachel O. Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Dir. Errol Morris. Lions Gate, 1999.
Rosenheim, Shawn. “Interrotroning History: Errol Morris and the Documentary of the Future.” The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event. Ed. Vivian Sobchack. New York: Routledge, 1996. 219–34.
Ryan, Tom. “Errol Morris.” Senses of Cinema 16 (Sep. 2001). 3 July 2019 <http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/feature-articles/morris/>.
Stiegler, Bernard. “Derrida and Technology: Fidelity at the Limits of Deconstruction and the Prosthesis of Faith.” Jacques Derrida and the Humanities: A Critical Reader. Ed. Tom Cohen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 238–70.
Williams, Linda. “Cluster Fuck: The Forcible Frame in Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure.” Camera Obscura 73.25.1 (2010): 29–67.