A disturbing film on a disturbing subject. Since it played in a very limited number of theaters in Los Angeles and New York, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., directed by Errol Morris, was not seen by many.
Personally, I was a little wary about seeing this film. The subject content - a man who states that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz - was not something I was especially looking forward to. Yet, perhaps a little surprisingly, the film proved at least somewhat insightful. By creating a documentary on Leuchter, Morris examined the reasons why Leuchter denies the existence of gas chambers. The answer is much more complicated than antisemitism.
Introducing Fred Leuchter
Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. was a self-made expert on execution devices. By upgrading outdated killing devices (electric chairs, lethal injection machines, gallows, and gas chambers) in state prisons, Leuchter believed he was doing something good by making executions more humane. Though he says he can sleep well at night with this knowledge, he also admits he drinks 40 cups of coffee and smokes six packs of cigarettes a day.
This documentary revolves around Leuchter's own words. It his through his eyes, expressed by his words, that we see his life unfold. He shares with the audience his passion for making executions humane; his pride in his growing business of execution device upgrades; and his self-confidence in his ability to upgrade any and every execution device.
Mission to Auschwitz
In 1988, Leuchter was contacted by Ernst Zündel (a Holocaust revisionist) who asked and paid him to visit Auschwitz to determine whether or not there were gas chambers. Zündel sent along a film crew with Leuchter to document the (illegal) gathering of "evidence" from Auschwitz. Leuchter seemed excited about this trip; he was absolutely confident that he was the only person competent to make this decision.
In this film, we see excerpts of Leuchter in Auschwitz. He sets up lookouts while he chips away at gas chamber walls. He drops down into a hole in the remains of a crematoria and randomly picks up a brick, puts it into a plastic bag, then tucks it into his sweatshirt. I thought he looked like a bumbling fool who was desecrating a sacred place. Some people in the audience were sniffling, trying to hold back tears.
At this point, the documentary is not solely the voice of Leuchter but also of Ernst Zündel, David Irving (a Holocaust denier), Leuchter's estranged wife, James Roth (laboratory manager of Alpha Analytical Laboratories), Robert Jan Van Pelt (co-author of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present), Shelly Shapiro (Director of the Holocaust Survivors and Friends Education Center), and Suzanne Tabasky (founding member of the Malden Holocaust Commission). These other voices discuss Leuchter's "findings."
Overall, Leuchter looked out of his element but he didn't realize it. While trying to refute history with a few illegally collected chips from broken down walls, he doesn't even know if the samples he chose are from the interior of the gas chambers. He doesn't stop in the archives to see the plans for the gas chambers. He takes the samples to a lab but doesn't tell the scientists what the samples are from. James Roth, one of the scientists, states that had he known what the sample were from, he would have conducted very different experiments. He also says that the experiments done on the samples would have seriously diluted the gas (the entire concrete or brick chunk was considered the sample rather than just the surface where the gas would have barely penetrated).
Rise and Fall
Zündel brought Leuchter out of relative anonymity and Leuchter seemed to bask in the limelight. His findings were published in "The Leuchter Report" and Leuchter was treated like a hero at denier and revisionist conferences. But things soon went downhill for Leuchter - he found himself with no execution device upgrade orders, without friends, and without a wife. There is great bitterness in his voice when he explains that there is a conspiracy against him. He doesn't seem to understand that there is a price to pay when you publicly offend people with little to no evidence. Instead, he sees it as a right to free speech.
Errol Morris' film. Mr. Death, lets you into the mind of Leuchter and helps you understand the mind behind "The Leuchter Report."
But yes, he is peculiar. He has what you might describe as an unwholesome obsession with executions. But beyond that, he really does seem like a rational person. Maybe not the most rational person I've ever encountered, but not somebody who is clearly out of his mind. He is very ingenuous, he's very trusting. I'd like to think that the trouble that Fred got himself into is a product of his vanity rather than any out and out madness. Is it mad to think that you are infallible? Is it mad to think that you may know better than everybody else? Well perhaps. But there are lots of people out there who feel that way.
--- Errol Morris
Did I like the movie?
Well, it was an interesting, if not also disturbing, look into Leuchter's mind. It was almost as if watching someone being inducted into the KKK - they like the attention, believe they are doing what's right, and nothing you can say to them will change their mind. I only recommend this movie if you want a glimpse into this kind of mind.