MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER, JR.
(director/writer: Errol Morris; cinematographer: Peter Donohue; editor: Karen Schmeer; cast: David Irving, Fred A. Leuchter Jr., James Roth, Shelly Shapiro, Suzanne Tabasky, Robert Jan Van Pelt, Ernst Zündel; Runtime: 91; Lions Gate Releasing; 1999)
“This documentary offers one of the most pertinent looks at two highly charged emotional subjects: capital punishment and the Holocaust.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Errol Morris’s unorthodox documentary is about the son of a Massachusetts prison superintendent of transportation who grew up in the prison atmosphere and later on went into the business of upgrading traditional Death Row equipment. As his reputation grew among prison personnel because of his technical skills so did the amount of business he procured from different states all over the country, all with supposedly antiquated and insufficient killing systems. What makes Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. a most challenging subject for the documentary filmmaker: is that the story tries to explore a kind of evil that is hard to put one’s finger on. Leuchter is not necessarily an evil person, yet the causes that he advances because of his vanity — are evil. His bad notoriety comes about only when he backs a neo-Nazi group and thereby forsakes his reputation.
Errol Morris knows what he is after in this film and mines it out of his resourceful subject. Morris has found a peculiar kind of individualist in Leuchter, someone who blindly thinks he knows what the truth is, who trusts that he couldn’t be wrong if he believes something. He, thereby, shuts off any other means of hearing the truth but through his own vanity. This hubris is a trait Fred shares with many ideologues, to a certain degree. But it is this mania that Leuchter has, that won’t be shaken out of him. It is what makes him such a compelling study. He is someone who appears to be a sincere and mild-mannered man; but, despite those fine characteristics he turns out to be a most obstinate fellow–someone who is driven by his own egomania, willing to fight to his death for what he believes in.
Fred is a self-taught engineer, who found himself motivated by his sense of compassion to invent more efficient and “humane” execution devices. He is a tiny, mousy, loquacious man, someone who compulsively can’t stop talking about what he does for a living, which lends a dismal sense of perverse comedy for half the film until his unchecked demeanor began to become grating and overbearing. He is a lonely and sad soul, someone who craves acceptance, who is limited only by his lack of insight. It is not hard to think of him as a twerp, whose expertise in executions seems to be real enough but who otherwise is a strangely enigmatic man, someone whom it is not possible to really penetrate. He is someone who disturbingly can’t think straight about things that most any child would have little trouble with, such as knowing the difference between what is right and wrong.
Who Fred is, can only be answered by what he does for a living. Fred is someone who improved the functioning of the modern electric chair, gave America a better electric chair helmet, built gas chambers in a more efficient manner, improved the techniques of the lethal injection by cutting down on human error, and built a better gallows for hangings by making a better trapdoor. In other words, like the Nazis who gave Germany more technical efficiency, he is the perfect imitation of them in spirit. Yet, he is someone who isn’t even aware that he might be a Nazi, he has so desensitized himself of any sense of moral consciousness and responsibility for his actions. The filmmaker allows him to be viewed as he sees himself and how those who were involved with him see him; and, the consensus is that he is someone who craves the limelight — even if this attention results in the loss of his career.
I think that Fred had to know when he joined forces with a neo-Nazi group what he was doing and what kind of risky political stand he was taking and that he would be considered part of that hate group of Holocaust deniers, that there could be no way he could continue to maintain that he is not an anti-Semite and be believed. Certainly not by Holocaust survivors, who are used in the film to tell what they think of him. To think otherwise, that he is just an innocent fool, would be to deny what is the obvious. Yet, Fred is presented as someone who was naively influenced by the limelight to do what he did and was not motivated by a political agenda.
Earl Morris makes documentaries about as good as anyone ever has, tackling subjects that others would shy away from (this being his seventh feature- some others are-Gates of Heaven/Fast, Cheap & Out of Control/The Thin Blue Line). His works are not mere biographies or Hollywood driven achievements, but poetics of the cinema that sing to our inner sense of being that make us think about the life of the person on film in a way that we most likely wouldn’t have thought about them if we had not seen what Morris saw and presented us with. His subjects are unique individuals whose behavior is dictated by their very unusual personal obsessions, no matter what society might think of the strange path they have taken. This film is no exception and like the director’s other works it’s a visual testament to the human spirit, warts and all.
Fred Leuchter Jr. is one of those ordinary looking people who is so driven by complex forces in him, that his tale is wracked with wonderment at how someone could be both a technical genius and such a damn fool. In an odd way, because of his individualism he is even appealing–which makes this a very scary film; as ultimately, this documentary is about how evil flourishes if it goes unanswered.
The career of Leuchter caught fire when there was a growing need for the consultant services he provided the prisons. There were not many other engineers, for mainly moral reasons, who wanted to be involved with the instruments of death. Also, he got most of the prison contracts because he offered prison officials good prices for his work. Prison officials didn’t quite understand their equipment, which in most cases either was built by inmates or electricians who didn’t have the know-how. In most prisons, the correct amount of currency it took to kill a prisoner without making the execution into a torture, was not common knowledge. As a result, he was esteemed in the community of penal corrections for his contributions in improving the efficiency of their instruments for capital punishment, that is, until everything came crashing down on him.
Leuchter is disarming when he is talking with love about the equipment he put together and how well it works, and how compassionate he is for those being executed — wishing only for them to have a good execution. He faces the camera with the goofy smile of a child who doesn’t want you to think badly of him, even if you already know he has put his hand in the cookie jar and stolen the goods.
Fred’s downfall comes, when he is invited by a neo-Nazi group to give them scientific proof that the gas chambers weren’t part of the Holocaust. He is to be an expert witness at a trial of one of the hate groups’ propagandist, Ernst Zündel, who is on trial for violating Canada’s law forbidding Holocaust denial and for spreading lies that can incite racial hatred, and by his writing of the Holocaust revisionist pamphlet entitled “Did Six Million Really Die?” He and his anti-Semite cronies enlist Leuchter to go to the concentration camps in Poland and gather evidence that the Holocaust didn’t take place and for him to do their bidding for them to make their group look legitimate in the scientific community. For anyone in their right mind to believe such garbage, is beyond comprehension. For anyone to have done what Leuchter did and not be an anti-Semite himself is, in my opinion, very unlikely. But in the case of this very strange man the viewers have a chance to decide for themselves what Leuchter is all about after hearing him say he has not backed the neo-Nazi group because he is a bigot, but he did so because he believed they were scientifically right in denying the Holocaust.
As a result of the trial Zundel is found guilty and Leuchter’s forensic reports are found to be unscientific and inaccurate, filled with a multitude of things he never even evaluated and that the ones he evaluated were tested in the wrong way. The Dutch concentration camp historian, Robert Jan Van Pelt, is the real champion of truth in this film as he goes into detail of how ludicrous Leuchter’s so-called research was and how evil it was for him to go into a place like Auschwitz and into a crematorium like the infamous number two, where 500,000 Holocaust victims died and then have the gall to say that there was no gas chambers there. It is evident he didn’t know how to test for cyanide, being that it can only be tested from samples taken on the surface of the stones, since the gas can’t penetrate further. Leuchter’s tests were diluted too much by going into the depths of the walls, where it would be impossible to find traces of the gas. The historian also points out how Leuchter never checked the camp records, which clearly showed documentations of gas chambers and ventilation systems.
Leuchter became not just a witness at the trial for neo-Nazis, which is bad enough, but he also went on the lecture circuit for these Holocaust denial revisionist groups, enjoying the neo-Nazi groups’ affection and applause. His waitress wife didn’t appreciate that their honeymoon was to the concentration camps, and she divorced him soon after their marriage. The prisons stopped hiring him, which he blames on Jewish groups putting the pressure on them. He also complains of being brought up on charges of falsifying his credentials by the state of Massachusetts. He is pictured as a man who is now walking on a lonely trail, as Van Pelt says “a fool who has stepped in the Holy of Holies.”
Fred’s an earnest man, if nothing else, who says he drinks forty cups of coffee and smokes six packs of cigarettes a day. But he is as recalcitrant today as he was at the trial, failing to admit that he was wrong, even after it was conclusively shown that he had no clue how to test for cyanide and his refusal to understand that the concentration camps had undergone repeated changes since the days of the Holocaust, which had made his unauthorized tests of chopping up bricks inconclusive. All he could say as a rejoinder to his accusers, is that the execution by cyanide is too impractical a method of genocide: “Why didn’t the Nazis just shoot them all?” The answer is simple, the Nazis lost track of what it was like to be human and they were determined to use science to carry out their genocide in an impersonal way. The Nazis did what he is doing now, spread the Big Lie that the Holocaust never took place.
This documentary offers one of the most pertinent looks at two highly charged emotional subjects: capital punishment and the Holocaust, which makes for a devastating comparison. What’s also worth noting, is how acceptable and rational Leuchter is until the moment the neo-Nazis take hold of him. That should give one some food for thought about the American penal system and how it is used to punish offenders. A highly recommended film.
REVIEWED ON 4/20/2000 GRADE: A