rethinking reality: historical truth in the present



The historical event is fixed in time; any reality of a historical event in the present is necessarily revealed in a fragmentary (rather than a unified, narrative) form. Two of Errol Morris's films, The Thin Blue Line and Mr. Death/Fred Leuchter seem especially effective at approaching some of the ways in which the truth of a historical Other implicates and infiltrates the Self—the context of our present.

In both of these films, Morris is concerned with the relationships between truth and lies and how each functions in the production of a historical reality. In The Thin Blue Line, Randall Adams has been accused of murder and faces the death penalty. One of Morris' interviewees is David Harris, who in the end provides Morris with a taped confession of his guilt in the murder. As the film progresses, we realize that Harris is also in jail, convicted of a murder and having a past record of violence (Williams).* As we begin to put the many claims to truth together, we start to discover what the truth really is. But more importantly than this, Morris gets at this truth not by giving us the one account which seems to most closely reflect it, but by setting the truth against lies. Both figure equally into the construction of a historical truth.

The doubly-taped confession at the end of The Thin Blue Line helped to free Randall Adams. Morris's construction of history in truth, lies, and above all, in visual evidence shifted perceptions of history to the end that the event's present realities have been changed. In effect, reality not only constructs film but film in return can serve as a construct of reality. The documentary's claims to truth has expanded this relationship which once seemed so one-sided. The Thin Blue Line makes explicit the ways in which perceiving history inherently effect the reality of the present.

In Mr. Death, Fred Leuchter establishes himself as an expert in the electric chair and subsequently other forms of execution such as the gas chamber. The second half of the film traces his dubious research at the sites of concentration camps to see whether or not they did use gas chambers to execute prisoners. We gradually realize that his conclusion is that these sites were more likely bread ovens than gas chambers.



Mr. Death / Fred Leuchter, 1998 — 57sec. clip



Leuchter's studies were done in the 1970's and his findings were picked up by Neo-Nazi groups as unquestionable evidence that the Holocaust did not exist. Morris juxtaposes these claims with other evidence, however. Footage of Leuchter's tests are interspersed with large amounts of footage of camp records and inventories which call for gas-proof windows and other telling equipment.

Morris again represents reality (in this case, the historical Other) by constructing it in terms of the opposition of truth and untruth. (Fiction is not necessarily untruth, either: footage taken from Dead Man Walking serves to reinforce the nonfiction testimony of "Mr. Death.") Leuchter's credibility in the first half of the film does not carry into his exploration of the concentration camps. The faction between the two seems to be tied to a mismatch in the scale of mortality. Mr. Death shifts from the individual victim in the electric chair to the mass genocide of the Holocaust, but Fred Leuchter's expertise does not carry over so easily. Morris exploits this by destroying the credibility of his subject in the second half of the film.

But there still remains the danger that Leuchter's misguided testimony will be given undue credibility. Morris's dedication of the film to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust reflects his concern that his representation of history may be misjudged in the realities of the present. In other words, might Neo-Nazis take up this film as a document proclaiming the complete fiction of the Holocaust based on Leuchter's testimony? Does this film run the danger of changing our historical consciousness to the point that the present is also altered?

Such concerns seem to stem from the fact that we rely on representations of history to arrive at an understanding of the reality of a historical event. Filmic representation, as we have seen with JFK and Anne Frank Remembered, tends to distance the present from the past, the audience from the historical event, the Self from the Other. Just as the documentary film is created and not merely recorded, our historical consciousness is a creation of our modes of representation.

Representation is the only way to investigate the truth of historical events which are fixed in the past. What is easily overlooked, however, and what Errol Morris' two films make explicit, is the ways in which modes of representation can determine the realities of our present. Film does not simply take from reality, it presents its recorded simulacra to an audience who uses the images and sounds to reconstruct history and reality in their own minds.

Film has traditionally treated its historical subject as the Other. The filmmaker intrudes on the space of the event and seems to create relationships between us and the subject. But the relationships are defined on our own terms; the event is fed to us in a cinematic structure we are comfortable with. The result is that we become distanced from the Other. We may view the Zapruder footage of Kennedy's assassination several times and begin to relate to the images before us, but that doesn't bring us any closer to the historical referent itself. The Zapruder footage is one representation of historical reality that is constructed from the visual image and therefore only exists in the audience who sees the film. Although JFK is a much different representation, the same can be said for its reconstruction of history.

The distancing of past from present and audience from history poses a threat to our understanding of reality unless we are able to unpack some of these relationships between historical event, filmic representation, perception of this historical reality, and the fragmentary realities that exist in the present as a result of these forces. All historical representations are to some degree constructions, and the way an audience internalizes this reconstructed history begins to reflect something about our own individual and collective realities in the present.



"Ever heard of the proverbial scapegoat?" —The Thin Blue Line, 1988