Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
1999, PG-13, 96 min. Directed by Errol Morris.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 25, 2000
Leave it to Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control) to make a documentary about a manufacturer of execution equipment, who is also a confirmed Holocaust denier, that seems more like a subtle, elegiac tone poem than an indictment of human banality and the evil that men do. Morris has long been a rara avis among documentarians -- his films seem less like lessons than lesions, exposing the oddities and toxins within humanity's frail shell of body and mind -- and Mr. Death is no exception. The film opens with a galvanizing, super-stylized shot of the diminutive Leuchter silhouetted against a crackling, lighting-wracked cage. This, the shot informs in no uncertain terms, is Mr. Death, master of life itself. It's a wry joke, of course. Fred Leuchter, a wiry, bespectacled, marginally whiny anti-mensch, is anything but all-powerful. Morris proceeds from old Super-8 footage of young Fred kidding around with his prison-worker pop, to the engineering-degreed adult creating working electric chairs for states whose current models are leaving their death row inmates bereft of items like skin and eyeballs in addition to life. Leuchter, a queer little rodent of a man who freely admits to imbibing “40 cups of coffee and six packs of cigarettes a day,” likens his work to any other vocation spent maintaining the societal infrastructure. There's precious little difference between a life-support machine in an ICU, he notes, and his own, self-made instruments of death. One gives life, the others take it away. Naturally, says Leuchter, somebody's got to do it, so why not him? After all, he's good at what he does. In the weird world of Leuchter, though, it's just a hop, skip, and a stagger from redesigning faulty state execution equipment to traveling to Auschwitz to disprove the notion of Nazi gas chambers, which is exactly what the man does, dragging along his newlywed wife and glibly referring to the whole, foul expedition as their “honeymoon.” (That's either grounds for divorce or committal, perhaps both.) Conscripted by Canadian Holocaust apologist Ernst Zündel, who was at the time on trial for disseminating Holocaust denial propaganda in the Great White North, Leuchter eagerly flies off to the killing grounds with sample bags and rock tools in his pocket, furtively chipping bits of the national memorial from the “alleged” gas chamber walls and transporting them back to the U.S. for chemical evaluation at a Massachusetts lab. His findings, that there is no cyanide residue trapped in the stone, and that therefore the gas chambers themselves are fictional constructs, is taken to heart by his neo-Nazi supporters (though refuted by the chemists), and promptly, unsurprisingly, wrecks his life. As in the title, Morris plays up the “rise and fall” of Mr. Leuchter, a sad, lonely Nazi dupe, so utterly boring in his own right that he feels (perhaps unwittingly) the need to cloak himself with more interesting robes, hideous though they may be, to get along in life. Morris isn't the type to toss about hard data so much as probe around the edges of it. We see soft-filtered shots of Leuchter poking around in the bowels of the death camps, mugging for the camera, and muttering that he hopes he won't run into any spooks down there. In fact he does not: The only ghost here is Leuchter himself, a man so desperately frail of mind and soul that even the memories of six million-plus dead are just another engineering experiment to him, performed gratis, and devoid of insistent emotion. Morris takes this noxious human vapor and dispels it, leaving Mr. Death alone in a tatty motel room, waiting for the real thing.