Grand Finale

After a messy beginning, Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy finds its rhythm; Errol Morris’ irony doesn’t quite mix with the Holocaust in Mr. Death.


Directed by Mike Leigh
October Films

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred D. Leuchter, Jr.
Directed by Errol Morris
Lions Gate Films

Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy broadly recounts the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado at London’s Savoy Theatre in 1885. Perhaps “broadly” is putting too fine a point on it. The first hour, in which Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) attempts to sever his ties with W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and the owner of the Savoy, Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook), is a mess: The order of scenes feels arbitrary, and characters pop up and vanish with bewildering frequency. You might be tempted to vanish, too. (Friends of mine did.) Be patient. Leigh’s movies, born of actors’ improvisations and loosely shaped, always take a while to find their rhythm–and, frequently, their point. This one finds everything. By the end of its two hours and 40 minutes, Topsy-Turvy has evolved into something extraordinary: a monument to process–to the minutiae of making art. And to something more: the fundamental sadness of people who labor to make beautiful things–who soar–and then come down to a not-so-beautiful earth.

It would be charitable to attribute the shapelessness of the early scenes to the characters’ own lack of focus, but it would also be inane. As Elvis Mitchell pointed out in Slate’s ” Movie Club,” Leigh’s opening shot features an usher who moves along a row of the Savoy Theatre lifting and peering under every seat. That’s every seat. You can almost hear Leigh cackling: “How’s this for a fast start?–you bourgeois slaves to narrative.” Inevitably, something does happen: Princess Ida, one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s duds, has its premiere, and Gilbert fumes over a review that calls him the monarch of “topsy-turvydom”–of formulaic plots involving magical elixirs and coins. A heat wave has hit London, theater attendance is down, and Sullivan is itching to go off and become the English Mendelssohn–to write operas and symphonies instead of comic “soufflés.” Leigh evidently loves the bloodless formality of the scenes between Gilbert and Sullivan, men of opposite tastes and temperaments who only overlap in their work. He must also love that those scenes are narrative dead ends: “How’s this for conflict?–you bourgeois slaves to melodrama.”

The wake-up call comes an hour into the movie. Gilbert attends a popular exposition of Japanese culture at Knightsbridge and watches Kabuki routines and women in kimonos pouring green tea (“spinach water”). When a Japanese sword he has purchased falls off his wall, he hefts it; mimes a fight while issuing strangled, samurailike cries; then has a brainstorm. We hear the horns of The Mikado overture, then Leigh cuts to the fully realized opening scene on stage at the Savoy: “We are gentlemen of Japan …” Just that chorus is enough to reanimate the audience–to make people sit up and grin. And Leigh’s technique of leaping back and forth between the finished Mikado and painstaking scenes of rehearsal has magic in it: You’re watching straw, then gold, then straw, then gold. And you see the connection.

A central section of the drama is missing. What exactly fired Sullivan up about doing The Mikado? What was different about this collaboration? No answer. Topsy-Turvy turns into something other than the Gilbert and Sullivan story: a portrait of life in the theater. A group portrait. D’Oyly Carte becomes a quiet third protagonist, a humane businessman. He softly negotiates a salary increase with the company’s lead comic (Martin Savage), a neurasthenic junkie. He gently seeks the assurance of a tipsy ingénue (the tremulous Shirley Henderson) that her “little weakness” will not re-emerge. In the dressing room, performers gossip and complain, drink and shoot themselves up with drugs. Leigh’s ensemble casts strive to be “microcosms” of society, so issues of class are ever present. You see it in Sullivan’s banter with the working-class musicians in the pit and in Gilbert’s with the uppity actors (the movie’s posturing middle class), whom he drills on pronunciation and poise. The chorus is presented as some sort of collective folk conscience when it lobbies Gilbert to restore the rashly cut solo (“A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist”) of the sad, fat fellow (Timothy Spall) in the title role.

Who would have predicted that Leigh would make Gilbert and Sullivan into Mike Leigh characters? Gilbert could be a stand-in for Leigh himself–a haughty, ill-humored man with an obsession for tiny details and a glowering dedication to process. Gilbert haggles with his actors over small things that shouldn’t resonate but which somehow add up. Leigh’s small things add up, too. The joke of The Mikado is that its Japanese lords are thinly disguised English bureaucrats; the joke of Topsy-Turvy is that the opera’s English performers seem culturally incapable of playing Japanese. They rehearse in long coats and top hats, and some of the women (and men!) express horror at appearing on stage without corsets. Behind the satire, however, is a reverence for Gilbert and Sullivan: The tempos are slower than modern audiences are used to, and the staging has been stripped of high-camp accretions. I saw a D’Oyly Carte production of The Mikado in the late ‘70s: It was played fast and to the groundlings and made me never want to see a G&S opera again. Now I can’t wait for the next production.

Only a lunatic would call Topsy-Turvy, with its lame first hour and host of loose ends, a masterpiece, but by the finale I was ready to have myself committed. The finale itself must have done it. Leigh’s endings are often wondrous, and this one is up there with the rooftop scene in High Hopes (1988). The Mikado is a triumph–it would be the Savoy’s biggest hit–but there’s no transformation in the lives of its makers. Gilbert can’t bring himself to reach out to his brokenhearted wife (Lesley Manville), and Sullivan has a melancholy inkling that he has reached his artistic peak. The ingénue, Leonora, is drinking again, toasting herself in the mirror and praising the loveliness of Nature–a Nature that will, of course, destroy her. The final image is of Art: Leonora on stage singing Yum-Yum’s sublime “The sun whose rays are all ablaze …” As Leigh’s camera pulls back over the orchestra and the audience, this movie feels like one of the saddest and loveliest tributes to the lives of artists ever made. Topsy-Turvy leaves you upside down and breathless.

Like Mike Leigh, Errol Morris rarely begins a project with a clear idea of what he wants it to be. Sometimes he doesn’t end a project with a clear idea of what he wants it to be, either. His newest documentary, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred D. Leuchter, Jr., kicks up all sorts of messy emotions that his coolly ironic technique can’t begin to handle.

The director is in his weird element only in the first half-hour, in which he sits his subject down and gets out of his way. Leuchter, who looks a little like the archetypal movie dweeb Charles Martin Smith and has a heavy exurbs-of-Boston accent, explains how he became involved in redesigning problematic electric chairs. “Excess current cooks the tissue,” he says, barely suppressing a smirk at his own expertise. “There’ve been occasions where a great amount of current has been applied, and the meat actually will come off the executee’s bone like the meat coming off a cooked chicken.” Leuchter set about making capital punishment more “humane.” He moves on to talking about his redesigns for lethal-injection systems, gas chambers, and even a gallows, while underneath, Caleb Sampson provides macabre funhouse music and wistful calliope waltzes. Morris’ distance from his subject implies condescension–Leuchter looks like something in a jar. But that’s OK, because the man is an interesting specimen. Is he a monster or a humanist committed to eliminating the “deplawrable tawchaw” of capital punishment? It could go either way.

Mr. Death gets into deeper waters when it recounts the trial of Ernst Zundel in Canada for proclaiming that the Holocaust never happened. Zundel hired Leuchter to go to Auschwitz and examine the “alleged” gas chambers: Footage (taken by Zundel’s cameraman) shows the little man chiseling at walls, vandalizing what even he admits are international shrines. Leuchter smuggled specimens of rock and concrete back to the United States, where chemical analysis revealed no cyanide gas. Furthermore, Leuchter can’t figure out how the gas would even have been administered without killing the Nazis themselves–proof, he argues, that mass extermination at Auschwitz never took place. The subsequent “Leuchter Report” became the backbone of Zundel’s defense (he lost anyway) and of the burgeoning revisionist movement led by David Irving. But if Leuchter became a hero to neo-Nazis, he also became a target of Jewish groups and a pariah even in the execution business. When Morris hooks up with him for the last time, he’s in hiding from creditors.

Is Leuchter a raving anti-Semite or a pathetic pawn who thrived on having–for the first time in his life–a bit of celebrity? The film suggests the latter. It certainly produces no evidence of malice. Plenty of monstrous insensitivity and hubris, though. Morris uses the Dutch historian Robert Jan van Pelt as a counternarrator: He calls Leuchter “a fffool” who didn’t have a clue what to look for in a place that had changed enormously in 50 years. “If he had spent time in the archives,” says van Pelt, “he would have found evidence about ventilation systems, ways to introduce Zyclon B into these buildings–but of course I don’t think he knows German so it wouldn’t have helped very much.” The most devastating rebuttal is from the chemist in charge of the Auschwitz analysis, who explains that the gas wouldn’t have penetrated more than 10 microns into the wall (a human hair is 100 microns thick), so by crushing the samples (standard procedure), he had effectively diluted the cyanide 100,000 times. Against all this, Morris shows footage of Leuchter chiseling at Auschwitz and even adds some of his own, along with slow-motion shots of hammers bashing rocks, walls, floors, etc. It’s an obscenity.

After my rage at Leuchter had subsided, I began to get angry at Morris for aestheticizing that violation–turning it into an ironic art object. The director’s beautiful detachment suggests a kind of cowardice. His technique is based on standing back–maintaining a fixed distance–while his subjects hang themselves, and for a while that works stunningly. But at a certain point, isn’t it only human to want to engage this man? You don’t need to play Mike Wallace and demolish Leuchter on camera. You could just ask him what he makes of, say, van Pelt’s assertion that the answer to the riddle of the gas chambers was all over the archives, or what he thought of the chemist’s declaration that the test performed for cyanide was the wrong test. Morris can be heard asking one question only: “Have you ever thought you might be wrong or that you made a mistake?”–sufficiently broad that Leuchter can casually affirm his own inanity.

My concern here isn’t so much for Leuchter or even the Holocaust revisionists, who’ll just think he was sandbagged. The problem is that when a documentary filmmaker seems too scared or cool or arty to violate his own immaculate aesthetic, he ends up weakening his case. He also provides no emotional release, which isn’t a small matter when the subject is Holocaust denial. Morris was close enough to Leuchter to have gotten something more, to have gone a little deeper in search of a poison that does penetrate surfaces.