Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
The temptation to believe one's own hype and begin acting on it has been the deathblow to scores of otherwise promising people. In the humdrum world of everyday people, few examples of this would surpass that of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.
In award-winning director Errol Morris' ("The Thin Blue Line," "A Brief History of Time") "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.," audiences are introduced to a veritable walking contradiction. A self-taught expert in the world of execution engineering, Leuchter is introduced as a humanitarian whose mission in life is to refine and create execution devices that are as efficient and painless as possible.
In a rather detailed and multitextured examination of Leuchter's work, we discover that despite being contracted by several death penalty states to evaluate and repair their various death row devices, most of his knowledge in the field was learned on the job. In one of the films more telling moments, Leuchter himself questions why anyone would assume that because he is an expert on one form of execution, he would naturally be well versed on others.
Be that as it may, Morris paints a picture of a man whose compassion and desire to make death painless, despite seemingly lacking the credentials one would presumably need for said job, is at constant odds with his view of society and his often oblivious disregard for how the world will perceive him.
Morris' tale takes a decidedly dark turn when Leuchter foolishly decides to hire himself on in defense of Nazi sympathizer Ernst Zundel's Canadian trial for publishing false history with intent to incite racial hatred. Zundel was brought to court after publishing two holocaust denial books titled "Did Six Million Really Die" and "The Hitler We Loved and Why." Zundel's camp had heard about Leuchter and commissioned him to go to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp to conduct his own investigation regarding whether people had actually been gassed at the facility.
As he tells it, Leuchter actually believed his work would be the crowning achievement in his strange and intriguing career. After illegally removing brick and mortar from Auschwitz, Leuchter had the samples tested for cyanide. When test came back negative, he quickly concluded that the buildings were not and could not have been used as gas chambers. His exhaustive theories were issued as "The Leuchter Report," a document denounced immediately as propaganda for Holocaust denial. Indeed, the methods Leuchter uses and the sources for the specimens he exhumed are questionable and ultimately the roots of his undoing.
Needless to say, the man who had become a kind of celebrity for his work in the field of execution quickly found himself ostracized by most of the people who had supported his work. Prisons no longer wanted to be associated with him, and his livelihood shrunk down to nothing.
Ever defiant, however, Leuchter continued to support his hypotheses and denounce those who criticized his report and its findings.
It is the strength of Leuchter's almost inconceivable convictions that makes "Mr. Death" such a fascinating work. Director Morris has long understood the importance of a strong subject in making a documentary compelling. In Leuchter, we find a man who even now cannot understand why his work has had such devastating fallout. Convinced he always did the right thing and that he is in no way an anti-Semite, Leuchter is confined to his own personal hell.
Often disturbing and always engaging, "Mr. Death" is a dramatic and puzzling look at a man who built a career on intrigue and desire; a man with little in the way of actual background to support his work (a large irony coming in the form of his education actually being in history, not engineering) but enough gumption to convince people that he is someone worthy of respect and support.
In the end, however, we find someone who's belief in himself has so far transcended his actual merits that his life drowns in the muck of his own ridiculous assertions -- despite having ample opportunity to pull himself out.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements.
"Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr."
Fred A. Leuchter Jr.
Robert Jan Van Pelt
A Lions Gate presentation. Director Errol Morris. Producers David Collins, Michael Williams and Dorothy Aufiero. Director of photography Peter Donahue. Editor Karen Schmeer. Music Caleb Sampson. Production designer Ted Bafaloukos. Sound Steve Bores. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.