Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999): United States – directed by Errol Morris
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some disturbing subject matter and mature content
Errol Morris is one of the most revered documentarians of all time, and he proves why in Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. In the past Morris has taken a mundane story (Vernon, Florida [review here] for instance) and made it fascinating. Or covered injustices or odd characters in films like The Thin Blue Line and Gates of Heaven. Mr. Death is slightly different, as he takes a polarizing character and presents him from a number of viewpoints.
The way Morris can sway audiences’ sympathy through the simple revelation of information is incredible. If one is familiar with the story of Fred Leuchter, perhaps he or she might not be as affected by the film, but in Morris’ hands a newcomer will be twisted apart, torn to the core as the good guys and bad guys become fuzzier and more convoluted.
Fred Leuchter starts as another odd bird, the type of eccentric character that makes a documentary a joy to watch. He has a fascination with death, but not one that is overly morbid or obsessive. Having grown up in the prison system he was familiar with how capital punishment was meted out to death row inmates. He wasn’t opposed to capital punishment, but soon found that there was a great deal lacking in how executions were performed. Eventually he starting crafting a new type of electric chair, one that would be adapted by a number of state prison systems.
As Leuchter talks about his creation he becomes sterile and technical, like a doctor discussing surgery. It is evident that Leuchter has thought through every aspect of the execution process, from cooked bodily tissue to the human waste excreted during death. He is worried that too much current causes the skin to literally melt off some inmates, and worries that urine released during death might be conductive, posing a potential electrical hazard to the guards performing the execution.
During this segment Leuchter seems to be a strange character, one more in tune with the capital punishment system than most people would feel comfortable with. It is clear that he cares about the humane disposal of criminals, and is in favor of execution as long as it doesn’t approximate torture. And, even though his temperament might be off-putting to some viewers, the calmness with which he espouses his opinions will force some people to reevaluate their own viewpoints.
But then Morris unveils a new chapter of the story, as Leuchter is contacted by a man convicted of Holocaust denial in Canada. Ernst Zündel, a German who lived with the guilt of his country’s leader’s atrocities during World War II, printed pamphlets claiming that the Holocaust did not occur. Canadian laws against Holocaust denial send him to jail, but he takes the case to court and calls on Leuchter to provide evidence for him.
Leuchter, who to this point has been sympathetic if a tad eccentric, takes the trip to Europe and sneaks into an alleged concentration camp with a camera crew. Trespassing on ground that has been all but hallowed by generations of Holocaust survivors, he reports that he finds no evidence that the underground bunkers were ever used as gas chambers. He takes brick samples, has a lab analyze them, makes schematics of the bunkers, and concludes that the camp could never have been used to murder the thousands of people that were supposed to have been destroyed there.
He returns to Canada with his findings and presents them to the court. An uproar ensues, during which he is publicly demonized. At the same time, underground anti-Semitic groups come to lionize him; he speaks at conventions and his report is a near best-seller on the hate group circuit. It is here that Leuchter becomes a very different man in the eyes of the audience.
Detractors say that he got swayed by the power, by being part of a group and adored by many people. Others say that his technique was faulty: a lab technician says that he never told them what to test for, and their processes were entirely wrong as a result. Morris interviews a great number of people from a variety of places, and they all add a new aspect to Leuchter’s story. It comes out, eventually, that Leuchter wasn’t even a qualified engineer; all of his past work was basically given to him because of his one success on an electric chair.
The genius of Mr. Death lies in Morris’ telling of the story. The characters and themes are complex, but Morris enables them to dig a level deeper thanks to the construction of the film. The audience gets to know Leuchter at first, as a likable weirdo who obsesses about death machines but not death. Then the utter insanity of his ideas come to light, and everything is turned around. But the change isn’t sudden and abrupt; the slow revelations make Leuchter’s transformation that much more painful.
Zundel, meanwhile, comes across as the worst person to live since Hitler. He’s an extremist far beyond any level of understanding, and makes the most conservative spewer of hatred pale by comparison. But his role in Leuchter’s life is unmistakable, and without him the story would not be complete. In Mr. Death Morris has crafted one of his finest, most complex documentaries. A fascinating subject combines with his immaculate construction to create an emotionally rattling and thought provoking film, one that every mature viewer should strongly consider seeking out.