Crazy Love (2007) and Mr. Death (1999)

There are spoilers. I am only going to tell you once.

One of my favorite things is to catch a documentary on the spur of the moment, a documentary where I know nothing about the subjects. So it was on an early October evening when I was home, sulking around with a nasty sinus infection, that I saw Crazy Love (2007) was about to start on Sundance.

Within a few minutes, I was hooked. How could I not be? The man being interviewed, Burt Pugach, had been described as looking like Arnold Stang when he was younger. It was all light-hearted and fun in the beginning, and all I knew is that the cable guide description said that one of Pugach’s love affairs lead to something “horrific.”

Pugach is a lawyer who, in the 1950s, was a man about town who dated the beautiful young Linda Riss, despite having a wife and kid already.  We see their turbulent, problematic relationship begin and end, we learn how Linda got on with her life.  As the story unfolds, the documentary is eerily successful at not giving away too much too soon. You see Linda in sunglasses during her present-day interview, but the camera is careful not to reveal why. Just before the key incident is revealed, you start to see behind the glasses a bit, you realize she’s blind. Later, immediately before the film reveals the horrific act — that a crazed Burt hired men to throw acid in Linda’s face in revenge for jilting him — we see present-day Linda drinking from a mug: “#1 Lawyer.”

The story is undeniably sensational. On the other hand, there are moments when the documentarians Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens blatantly alter a facts to make the situation seem more sensational. I’m thinking specifically of a story Burt tells about how a cohort, arrested at the same time he was and handcuffed to him, spitefully pushes Burt toward a camera so the newspapers can get a shot of him. We are shown a photo of Burt hamming it up during the perp walk and we think Burt is lying about the cohort. Yet if you watch closely, you see that photo of Bert is not from the day he is talking about. There are, however, photos from the day in the anecdote, pics that clearly show him head down, hiding, with a bandage on his head from a car wreck. The picture of him waving and smiling to the press is from a different day.

This fudging of the facts does not appear to be well-intentioned but rather done to milk the luridness of this story. The shockingly tasteless choice of song over the closing credits proves this without a doubt in my mind. All documentaries, deliberately or through narrative confusion, distort facts. It’s just what they do. So, while I love documentaries, I don’t always trust them.

The cable kept going out on me while I tried to watch this movie on Sundance, so I went to Netflix instant watch to finish it. While I generally have little use for reviews on the Netflix site, one reviewer stated:

This is actually a motivational film for all Psychotic stalkers that “You can get the Girl” if you really apply yourself.

They have a point. But I think it goes deeper than that: The overwhelming wrongness of this situation plays out in the fact that a woman who had been attacked, blinded, and left with facial scars by one partner could not find another partner to live out her life with. She apparently had this proven to her multiple times by the actions of men who would date or be interested in her, but clearly felt she wasn’t the marrying kind because of her injuries. Burt blinded and disfigured her, but society proved that his tactic of “ruining” a woman so no one else would want her worked.

***

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999).  Fred Leuchter, for those who don’t know already, owned a business that updated and revamped execution equipment for several states. In 1988, lawyers for a Holocaust denier on trial in Canada called Leuchter as a defense witness to prove that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Leuchter went — without permission — to Poland to chip away at the historical site to get samples and test for the presence of cyanide gas on the walls. He sent the samples away and allegedly found no cyanide, which he said was enough to make him realize the Holocaust never happened.

During the film, we’re presented with interviews and facts about Leuchter that paint him as a kindly, mousy little man, confused and maybe socially inept. In fact, his research at Auschwitz-Birkenau was so incomprehensibly wrong that I started to believe that he had no idea he wasn’t in the least qualified to do the work. He naively thought he could do the jobs of historian, forensic anthropologist, archaeologist, and biologist. This overall image of a confused little man who made mistakes was bolstered by the lone historian presented in interviews, who shows us that Leuchter was wildly wrong about the Holocaust, but gives him an out by reminding us that Leuchter didn’t speak German, which explains why he never even checked the Auschwitz archives; he couldn’t have read the documentation anyway.

Suddenly two Holocaust educators and activists, Shelly Shapiro and Suzanne Tabasky, show up near the end of the documentary. They are angry, condescending, and practically spit out their hatred for Leuchter. And I started to wonder what was going on, not simply because of the tone change, but because they mentioned things I had not heard referenced in the documentary. I felt like Shapiro and Tabasky knew a lot more about Leuchter than I did, even after nearly an hour and a half long documentary.

Turns out they did know more. Leuchter wasn’t some goofy guy who pretended to be historian: The man has a degree in history. Not looking at the Auschwitz archives was not naivete, it was criminal stupidity and willful ignorance. Further, director Errol Morris didn’t include Shapiro or Tabasky until after he showed the documentary at Harvard and was criticized for presenting Leuchter as lovable and clueless. Morris claimed viewers demanded he decide whether Leuchter was evil or good and present that in the film, so he added interviews with people who thought Leuchter had done something very wrong for balance… which indicates that even he acknowledged there was serious imbalance in the film. This fact in itself should cause every viewer to wonder what the intended point of the documentary was.

The documentary showed us one side of Leuchter while deliberately avoiding facts that would show him in a negative light. The documentary repeatedly claimed Leuchter is an engineer when he is not. It implied that Leuchter was a regular man who didn’t know the basics of historical research without telling us he had a fucking degree in history from Boston University. Data obtained from the samples off concentration camp walls was of no value as the wrong tests were ordered, but Mr. Death heavily implies that Leuchter did this out of ignorance.

This is remarkably dishonest filmmaking. There is no way for the viewer to make an informed decision about Leuchter when critical information is being withheld, manipulated to a shocking degree, or framed in lies and misinformation.

The whole point of Leuchter’s madness is that he took science, applied it inappropriately, and created facts where there were none all in an effort to pretend the Holocaust never happened. It’s ironic that the documentarian also took data, applied it inappropriately, and created facts where there were none. I don’t know what it means, and I can only speculate on what Errol Morris intended, but I recoil at blatant manipulation like this.

***

SBBN is not a political blog, at least not overtly, but I don’t feel a critic can avoid being political if they want to get to the boiling molten core of a documentary film. Documentaries are a messy business. There will be a dozen agendas from a dozen distinct people floating around while the film is being made. Some want the truth, some want a clear concise message and will adjust timelines or facts to provide coherence to a complicated matter, and some want to deliberately mislead the public. You cannot tell what a documentary film maker’s agenda is just by viewing the film, and you cannot rely on their PR and interviews, either.

It’s possible Errol Morris had sinister motives in mind with Mr. Death. My gut feeling is that he did not, but rather had a specific angle he wanted to pursue. He wanted the audience to ask themselves what appropriate punishment, if any, should be meted out to a man who holds an unpopular opinion.

[Pictured to the right: Holocaust deniers Ditlieb Felderer, Fred Leuchter, Robert Faurrison, Ernst Zundel.]

Despite their entertaining and modest exteriors, there are political motivations behind both these documentaries that cannot be brushed aside. Morris chose a Holocaust denier as an example of someone who made a mistake and who, per Morris, is being unfairly punished for being confused and speaking his mind. Morris presents the Holocaust as something distant, historical, and secondary to the main issues he wants to focus on. There is little talk of millions of innocent dead, of Nazis, of antisemitism or genocide. It’s as though the enormity of the Holocaust does not matter to Morris, which is discomfiting as we already know it does not matter to Leuchter, the unprepossessing man who doesn’t even believe in it.

Roy Baumeister says in Evil (as quoted in Denying History by Michael Sherber and Alex Grobman):

“The essential shock of banality is the disproportion between the person and the crime. The mind reels with the enormity of what the person has done, and so the mind expects to reel with the force of the perpetrator’s presence and personality. When it does not, it is surprised. Yet the magnitude gap provides on explanation for the surprise and disappointment at evil’s banality. The enormity of the crime is apparent from the victim’s perspective, but often to the perpetrator it was far less enormous. It might seem quite fitting and appropriate to be a rather ordinary, banal person, if the crime is viewed from the perpetrator’s perspective.”

The lack of inclusion of any anti-Leuchter interviews in Mr. Death was the easiest way to keep the reality of the Holocaust in the background. When complaints forced Morris’ hand and such interviews were included, it set up the dynamic that changed the focus of the film away from ordinary man caught in a bad situation to ordinary man whose countenance belies the evil underneath. The victims of the Holocaust, represented by interviewees Shapiro and Tabasky, cannot help but be astonished at anyone who does not comprehend the crime or its enormity. They both state that Leuchter is not a harmless fellow; they, in essence, ask us to see past his banality to his true evil intentions.

Viewers, when Shapiro and Tabasky appear in Mr. Death, are unprepared to accept what they say. The viewer has seen over an hour of documentary that framed the Holocaust as background detail, that spoke of Leuchter’s gentle nature, that listed excuse after reason as to why Leuchter could mistakenly, accidentally believe the Holocaust never happened. Reason and fact are shown as unreasonable and shrill; confusion and error became sympathetic and understandable.

In short, Mr. Death is Holocaust denier propaganda, whether it means to be or not.

Similarly, I don’t think Klores and Stevens wanted us to think the worst of Burt Pugach in Crazy Love, either; rather, I suspect that documentary took form under the tiresome spectre of hipster irony.

It’s unfortunate then that the film so aptly demonstrates the social and literary misconception that a woman’s appearance is her main asset, and once the beauty is gone, the woman holds no value. It is confounding that the documentary merely notes Linda’s subsequent problems with finding love after the tragedy as ironic without examining the deeper social implications.

Why did her fiance quietly dump her after the publicity died down? Why did none of the men she dated show interest in marrying her? What about the fact that Linda was physically beautiful before and after the attack? By not even bothering to answer these questions, Crazy Love shows that she was not desired because she was damaged goods, and further implies that this is so common and easy to understand that the film need not explain it. Surely some of this is due to the film’s stubborn pacing designed to get the maximum impact out of the startling reveal that Linda married her abuser, but consciously or not, the film truly does seem to accept some rather unenlightened cliches about feminine beauty.

Linda Riss Pugach and Burt Pugach, circa 1980.

Like Gloria Grahame, Joan Crawford, and Anna Levine before her, Linda Riss’ entire being became synonymous with her damaged face, only in Riss’ case, it was happening in real life and not in a celluloid haze. As Kelli Marshall notes in her excellent essay Stars and Scars, women with power beyond beauty are often considered a threat and a danger to all around them, and after Linda marries the man who blinded her, she is indeed shown as hostile, rude, confrontational, helping to defend a criminal, and maybe even a little dangerous. Inadvertently or not, we’re shown what is clearly meant to be retroactive justification for her injuries.

A good documentary will tell you about the subject matter; a great documentary will tell you about yourself. With Crazy Love and Mr. Death, we were also told about the filmmakers’ views, their philosophies and visions, and it wasn’t particularly pleasant. Outright lies and omissions need not be employed when ingrained cultural tropes — lost female beauty, the clueless but lovable nerd — can become subtle propaganda tools. It’s discomfiting but necessary to realize that we, the documentary film audience, need to always be willing to see beyond the film if we want the truth.

3 Comments

  1. Yes, documentaries, Morris’ included by far, are hardly the definition of the word, usually. I saw both of those on TV as well, very very disturbing. Leaves a hurt in my brain.

  2. It was the one-two punch of seeing these almost back to back that got me. I had just watched Double Take prior to these films and I thought I was primed to question what I was told, but apparently wasn’t. After a few minutes online, I was extremely disappointed in myself for accepting the portrayal of Leuchter at face value. If Morris hadn’t included the new interviews, I don’t know how much time (if any) I would have spent on research.

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