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

Suggested reading:

The Claims of Memory: Representations of the Holocaust in Contemporary Germany and France

(1999), Caroline Alice Wiedmer

Denying the Holocaust:

The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory

(1993), Deborah E. Lipstadt

History and Memory After Auschwitz

(1998), Dominick Lacapra

Breaking Crystal: Writing and Memory After Auschwitz (1998), Efraim Sicher (Editor)

Errol Morris has become something like the Oliver Sacks of contemporary filmmakers, but where Sacks looks to medical oddities to illuminate the human experience, Morris zeroes in on the moral and psychological anomalies that mark his subjects. Though miles apart in tone, The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control were populated by people who didn’t have a full picture of themselves, people who acted from such narrowly focused perspectives that, like Sacks’ eye patients, they seem to represent special ways of seeing.

Now, Morris has given us another man with flawed vision in Mr. Death – The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Leuchter, the son of a former transportation supervisor at a Massachusetts state prison, spent much of his adolescence at his father’s workplace talking to the inmates and penal officers. Through that experience he developed a strong empathy for the Death Row inmates (or "executees," as he calls them) and the prison guards who, after living with a prisoner for years, one day must aid in his execution. When he reached adulthood, Leuchter invented himself as a self-taught engineer, and eventually became interested in finding a way to make state executions more humane – and certain – affairs. He created a new electric chair that he sold to the State of Tennessee for cost "and a 20% markup, which is more than fair." This success caused other states to come knocking on his door, and soon he was designing "humane" gallows, gas chambers, and lethal injection machines for prison systems across the country.

Leuchter’s inverted idealism, or his obsession with executions, landed him in hot water in 1988. When Ernst Z�ndel, a German national and professional Holocaust denier, was arrested in Canada for publishing false history, his defense team retained Leuchter to testify as an "execution expert" about the likelihood that poisonous gases had been used in the concentration camps. Leuchter traveled to Poland and visited the sites of three former camps, illegally removed brick and mortar samples from the ruins of the gas chambers, and smuggled them into the United States so that they could be analyzed for traces of hydrogen cyanide. The trip also served Leuchter as a honeymoon – a confirmed caffeine addict, he’d met his wife in the donut shop where she waited tables not long before he left for Poland. A small film crew also escorted the Leuchters, and much of Mr. Death consists of the casual but potent footage they shot. On one cold and rainy day, as his bride waited in the car doing crossword puzzles, Leuchter crawled among the ruins of Auschwitz’s gas chamber, lightheartedly chiseling samples out of the floors and walls of the room where 500,000 people were murdered.

At Z�ndel’s trial, Leuchter testified that no gassing could have occurred at Auschwitz because the chamber in question lacked adequate ventilation and sealing. He composed a scholarly looking piece of documentation called "The Leuchter Report" that memorialized his findings, but the trial judge refused to allow it to be entered as scientific evidence. (Predictably, the report has assumed iconic status among neo-Nazi groups.) The trial ended with Z�ndel’s conviction, and Leuchter’s credibility was demolished when his lack of education and credentials was brought out. After the trial, things only got worse for him. His wife left him, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts indicted him for practicing engineering without a license, and he lost his livelihood after various Jewish organizations successfully lobbied state governments to stop awarding contracts to him. Unrepentant and almost certainly vengeful, Leuchter began addressing neo-Nazi rallies and conventions, where he was looked on as something like an oracle. Insistent that he is not an anti-Semite, he was perfectly at home amongst the worst of anti-Semites.

While other talking heads chip in perspective or necessary information, Mr. Death mainly leaves it to Leuchter himself to describe the vicissitudes of his life’s work. Morris gives Leuchter every chance to make his case, but this frowzy little man, with his fleshy lips and colorless tweed jackets, only turns the opportunity into rope with which he hangs himself. An eclectic array of film footage backdrops his undiscriminating search for validation: Leuchter in a futuristic-looking cage surrounded by giant flashing electrodes, Leuchter as a youth horsing around with the inmates at his father’s prison, an elephant being electrocuted at Coney Island (this sequence was shot by Thomas Edison), and the documentary re-creations that Morris sometimes uses to bolster the salient points of his films.

The method has its faults. For one thing, we don’t how true it is when Leuchter claims that he alone of 5,000 non-certified engineers was indicted, and we have only his word that the Jewish groups were responsible for ending his career as a death-machine engineer. It would be nice to have some independent confirmation or rebuttal of these matters, especially since Leuchter views himself as a First Amendment martyr. At least Morris does take care to interview one important player. The chemist who performed the independent lab analyses is allowed to explain in great detail why no cyanide would be detectable today in the samples that Leuchter scavenged from the camp ruins. (Morris films are always part science lecture.)

Mr. Death isn’t as memorable as The Thin Blue Line, and Leuchter’s story is more pessimistic but not necessarily more revealing than the stories in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. But like those movies, Mr. Death probes at our moral and psychological blind spots, at the limited and self-reinforcing nature of our vision. Our obsessions are like a narcotic, Morris’ films seem to say, and while some of us may experience a wonderful high from them, others of us – like Fred A. Leuchter – are just as likely to come crashing down.

– Tom Block

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