pigeon tunnel errol morris john le carré david cornwell

Errol Morris on John le Carré and the unwieldy chaos of history

We spoke with the documentarian about his latest film The Pigeon Tunnel, a feature interview with spy-turned-novelist David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré.

The Pigeon Tunnel, Errol Morris’s feature-length interview with prolific spy-turned novelist David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, who died in 2020, is in no way a biopic. Instead, over the course of a four-day conversation between the two men, the film reflects on ideas of betrayal and truth, and on the ways in which Cornwell’s own life intersected with sweeping narratives of history.

David Cornwell may seem like an outlier in Morris’s career as an interviewer. No one else among his subjects has revealed so much of themselves through their work, albeit through the veil of fiction. Yet, while Morris agreed that Cornwell is, in this sense, an outlier, he pointed out that the themes that drive both le Carré’s novels and choices in Cornwell’s own life do in fact fit in with Morris’s central preoccupations about our world.

“I am fascinated with people who write about history or who are a part of history. One of the most interesting things about John le Carré for me is that he is writing about history. Almost all of his novels are connected with his direct experiences with history. I mean, the most obvious example is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which was written as the Berlin Wall was going up in Germany. It’s about a reckoning with personal biography, but also with history.”

Morris spoke about how Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999), which focused on a Holocaust denier and manufacturer of gas chamber equipment, “is a strange reckoning with history. Historical denial. But maybe the study of history is the study of people denying history in one form or another. Alas. I have a version — there’s this very famous (George) Santayana quote. ‘Those who are unfamiliar with history are condemned to repeat it.’ I have my own Errol Morris version of that quote: Those who are unfamiliar with history are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility.”

Morris points to a favourite moment in The Pigeon Tunnel, one that likewise concerns the processes of history, where Cornwell discusses a passage from Goethe’s Faust (over footage of the silent 1926 German film of the same name): “Faust says, I’ve learned everything, but I haven’t learned the secret of how everything works. What animates the world? What pulls the strings of the world? If you like, what is in the inmost room? (Cornwell) connects (this idea) with espionage, the desire to be that string puller, to be the controller, the person who, offstage, sees everything.

“I always thought, ‘Oh, he’s making some kind of existential claim of one kind or another. He is talking about who we are and how maybe we’re nobody.’ But he tells me, not by way of denying what I said, but by way of amplifying what I said, that it was about history.” 

In other words, there is no “inmost room” of high-level political schemers. “History isn’t about people pulling strings. It isn’t about conspiracies. I think this is actually an important theme for the current era that we live in — that history is chaos; pure, unadulterated chaos. People are too much at cross-purposes with each other ever to effectively conspire to do anything.”

pigeon tunnel errol morris john le carré david cornwell
The Pigeon Tunnel

This question of the inmost room feels key to understanding le Carré. To even ask who or what makes the world function is a question of child-like curiosity, and even the desire to be the string-puller is almost a child’s fantasy of calm and control in a world of infinite complexity. 

Steven Cornwell, one of le Carré’s sons and a producer on The Pigeon Tunnel, also addressed how his father “liked to look at the chaos of the world. And in a way, his process was to apply structure and story to it. That’s how he rationalized the world and how he found his creative journey. I think Errol, interestingly, is somewhat the reverse. Errol steps into the confusion of life, and in the process of moving through it, he forms a fable.”

Still, Morris and Corwell’s discussion of the sad disillusionment with the solace and safety of the idea of order and cohesion, feels highly pertinent. There may not be an inner room, but even the illusion thereof shapes the world. A conspiracy doesn’t have to be real to be potent.

Morris describes Cornwell as lacking “any kind of moral relativism,” as someone who “really did believe in good and evil” while somehow still being forthright about the ambiguities of being a spy. I sense that Morris doesn’t share this same easy conviction about ideas of right and wrong, but that he does find Cornwell’s certainty its own window to discuss maybe the ultimate question of documentary: that of truth. 

He and Cornwell share the view that “truth is not subjective” but in another memorable exchange towards the end of the film, the two discuss truth itself as an “absent third party.” Morris, speaking about this moment, said, “And I ask him, is that God? Who in the hell is this absent third party? But we know there’s a fact of the matter out there. There’s a real world. Philip K. Dick had a line that I’ve always liked, ‘Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.’”

The Pigeon Tunnel (directed by Errol Morris)

The Pigeon Tunnel begins streaming on Apple TV on Friday, Oct. 20. 

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