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Leaps of Faith

No matter who Time sees fit to anoint Man of the Century, it's difficult not to view World War II--and specifically, the Holocaust--as the 20th century's defining event. Indeed, it is the problem that Auschwitz poses to one's faith that creates the context for millennial movies as otherwise disparate as Errol Morris's new documentary and Agnieszka Holland's theological thriller.

Mr. Death, Morris's troubling portrait of the execution-technician and Holocaust-denier Fred Leuchter, began as part of Morris's Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control and begins with a tacky thunderstorm out of a grade-Z '50s horror flick. Is Leuchter a mad scientist--or a Frankenstein monster? Son of a man who worked for the Massachusetts penal system, Leuchter went into the family business. Having invented an electrocution ''helmet,'' he went on to design lethal-injection machines, gallows, and gas chambers.

Morris, who more or less invented the ironic documentary, seems to struggle here for an appropriate tone even as he allows Leuchter more than enough rope to hang himself. Leuchter proudly describes his product--death--and frames himself as a humanitarian. His graphic descriptions of electrocution are gruesome enough to wipe the smirk off anyone's face. Without meaning to, this specialist vividly makes the case against capital punishment--foreshadowing the way in which Morris's own treatment of the material is at once snide and reserved, bluntly straightforward and surprisingly oblique.

Lost highway: execution-technician Fred Leuchter in Mr. Death
photo: © Nubar Alexanian
Lost highway: execution-technician Fred Leuchter in Mr. Death

Details

Mr. Death
A film by Errol Morris
A Lions Gate Films release

The Third Miracle
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Written by John Romano from the
novel by Richard Vetere
A Sony Classics release

Highway and Paradise
Two films by Sergey Dvortsevoy
A First Run/Icarus release
At Film Forum through January 11

A self-designated engineer, Leuchter adopts a rational and persuasive tone that soon comes to seem unhinged. Monumentally self-absorbed, his huge ego inflated by 40 cups of coffee a day, the guy is a natural nerd, but Morris piles on the slo-mo to make him look totally crazed. There's a sense that the filmmaker is laughing, although it's not exactly funny when Leuchter reports that he married a waitress he met at Dunkin Donuts and that their honeymoon was spent in Auschwitz. He made the trip after the neo-Nazi white-supremacist
Holocaust-denier Ernest Zündel, on trial in Canada for publishing ''false history,'' recruited him as an expert witness on gas chambers.

Searching for proof that there were no mass gassings at Auschwitz, Leuchter illegally scraped the walls of the abandoned gas chambers for traces of cyanide. The expedition was videotaped: Ridiculous-looking Leuchter grins inanely while scrambling around the most death-haunted site in European history. (''It was kind of spooky,'' he tells Morris in voice-over.) The footage is additionally distressing for it not being clear that this moron is actually Leuchter. (The movie credits cite a ''re-enactment cast'' and Polish crew.) It does, however, provide a setup for Morris to demolish his subject's methodology.

A Dutch expert who spent 10 years on the archaeology of Auschwitz makes clear Leuchter's total ignorance of both historical and archival evidence. Even more devastating, Morris interviews Leuchter's own chemist, who explains that the samples Leuchter obtained were untestable: Cyanide does not permeate brick but remains, if at all, on the surface, and whatever traces that might have remained after 40-odd years would have been destroyed in the pulverized stone. Leuchter nonetheless used his ''research'' as the basis for a pseudoscientific report debunking the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz and other extermination camps.

''We have a hard job executing one man. Why didn't they just shoot them?'' Leuchter asks. Genocide is irrational and Leuchter's apparently nonideological willingness to discount the Holocaust because it doesn't ''make sense'' is one reason the neo-Nazis adore him. His British publisher approvingly calls Leuchter a ''simpleton,'' which is one way of characterizing his willful self-deception. At the end of the movie, Morris is heard (for the first time) asking if Leuchter thinks he could have made a mistake. Mr. Denial doesn't even hear the question. ''I did everything possible to substantiate the existence of the gas chambers,'' he claims--stupidly satisfied in his failure to convince himself.

Scarcely less haunted by the Holocaust, Agnieszka Holland's The Third Miracle is a drama predicated on faith in God rather than history. After a brief prologue in wartime Slovakia, the action jumps ahead 35 years to Chicago, where the call has gone out for Father Frank, a tormented soul currently residing on skid row. It seems that the Holy Virgin at St. Stanislaus Church is shedding tears of blood, which the parish takes as evidence that a recently deceased immigrant woman named Helen is a saint.

Played with extraordinary sympathy by Ed Harris, Father Frank is the reverse exorcist whom the diocese uses to debunk such local cults. ''They call you the miracle killer,'' somebody cracks. Father Frank, who became a priest when God spared his cop father (but just for three months), plumbs the lower depths of Slavic Chicago. He asks questions, drinks too much, gets a yen for Helen's bitter, nonbelieving daughter (Anne Heche); The Third Miracleis a sort of Catholic noir. The first half has a nifty B-movie feel--it's a canny little movie with a big, big theme. (This is the precise opposite of The Improbable Mr. Ripley, a pumped-up parade float about very, very little.)

God moves in mysterious ways and so does The Third Miracle--at least until a German archbishop played by Armin Mueller-Stahl enters the narrative as the Vatican's forbidding devil's advocate. (Oh for the days when Barbara Sukowa, who plays Helen in flashback, destroyed Mueller-Stahl in Fassbinder's remake of <The Blue Angel. This supercilious snob gets us rooting for Helen's beatification even after the screenwriter resorts to the sort of dramatically convenient supernaturalism that would embarrass the World Wide News

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