Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Sticking to beliefs despite overwhelming opposition can be considered a virtue. But what if those beliefs are false or even potentially dangerous? That’s the haunting question that runs throughout Errol Morris’ (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control) oddly engrossing new documentary, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

The film’s title character, Fred A. Leuchter Jr., calls himself “The Florence Nightingale of Death Row.” With a title like that, one would believe that he promises the condemned a reprieve from their sentences. Instead, he’s made a career out of making execution equipment quicker, more painless, and possibly even more humane. Leuchter tirelessly labors to ensure that the gallows, electric chairs, and lethal injection machines under his care do not malfunction, causing prolonged suffering for the convicted (like the gruesome electrocution scene in The Green Mile). Leuchter even suggests that the condemned in lethal injection machines should have padded chairs and should have pleasant pictures or even a television to watch during their final moments.

As Leuchter discusses his passion for merciful executions, Morris crosscuts with footage from Leuchter’s childhood (we get to see him as a boy visiting the prison where his father works) and of an elephant being electrocuted in a 1910 Thomas Edison short. Leuchter’s obsession quickly becomes eerily obvious. He even keeps an electric chair in his house and carries around a key chain in the shape of the instrument.

Because of the energy he devotes to the machines, one sometimes feels the urge to question his commitment to mercy. His face seems to glow with joy as he demonstrates how he would activate a chair. A creepy grin comes over his face as he presses the button. After Leuchter finishes gleefully demonstrating his wares, Mr. Death gets downright bizarre and frightening. In 1988, Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel, on trial for violating Canadian laws against publishing literature that was deliberately false, enlisted Leuchter to go on a “fact finding” mission to see whether people actually died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz and other sites. Leuchter brought his new wife along and joked that it was his honeymoon. Leuchter chiseled some “samples” from the walls of the ruined buildings and sent them to lab (the actual footage of his exploits is included with Mr. Death and is often darkly comic). When the lab did not confirm significant traces of cyanide, Leuchter concluded that millions did not die in German camps. Leuchter then defended Zündel in court and later watched his own career and marriage collapse.

It’s obvious that Leuchter was ill-suited to “investigate” the Holocaust. The mere disappearance of those five to six million people should have been enough to convince Leuchter, but he reached his conclusions after he spent only a few days stumbling around the ruined camps. Legitimate historians have spent years studying the sites and the voluminous original documentation. Strangely, Leuchter’s bachelor’s degree is in history.

Morris features commentary from Auschwitz expert Robert Jan van Pelt, who demonstrates that the sites are so ruined that samples would be meaningless. He even interviews James Roth, the lab technician who examined the samples. Roth states that Leuchter’s clumsy techniques made accurate testing impossible. Morris provides ample evidence that Leuchter’s findings are ludicrous, but his goal is not to merely prove Leuchter wrong. He also examines the kind of thinking that makes tragedies like the Holocaust possible. One wonders if Leuchter’s ideas might have been preconceived because he continually calls the gas chamber buildings “alleged” as he chips at their walls. Like the Nazis themselves, Leuchter blinds himself to the evils that were perpetuated. If some minor detail seems amiss, he uses it as an excuse to ignore the larger truth.

With his cheap suit, stained teeth (he claims to drink 40 cups of coffee a day and smoke six packs of cigarettes), and thick Massachusetts accent, Leuchter leaves an eccentric impression. Still, he’s not a lunatic. In his quest for righting perceived injustices, he has embraced contemptible ideologies. Watching Leuchter basking in the admiration of Holocaust deniers, the cliché about the road to hell being paved with good intentions becomes horrifyingly prescient. (PG-13) Rating: 9

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