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

Review by Carrie Gorringe
Posted 11 February 2000

A Documentary Directed by Eroll Morris

Fred Leuchter is the most likely of villains, according to the modern standard of assessing "evil". Unassuming in appearance, alternately pedantic and personable in manner, Leuchter, an engineer turned “death consultant” (best defined as an advisor to states on the most efficient means of improving their execution facilities to make them as “humane” -- Leuchter’s favorite expression -- as possible for the prisoners who have to make the ultimate payment for their crimes against society), and son of a prison guard, is convinced to his marrow that his is less a profession than it is a calling. He imparts to Morris more information than you might ever want to know about the horrible, macabre mishaps that can go wrong with state-sanctioned killing, delivered, as you might expect, in a matter-of-fact tone that belies their grisliness, not to mention their occurrences in and upon the bodies of what were once living, breathing members of humanity (the stomach-churning tales, if nothing else, do much to illustrate the fact that human beings, whether sick or healthy, don’t give up a hold on life very easily). Yet, that same matter-of-fact tone used by Leuchter, as the tales pile up one by one, becomes less a principle of “scientific” detachment and seems more like one that barely conceals a sadistic relish. This sinister intent reveals itself when the audience is given a glimpse into Leuchter’s basement workshop: an electric chair from one of Delaware’s prisons has been sent there for -- what else to call it? -- a necessary “refurbishing.” The audience then sees the picture of Leuchter lolling in the death chair with a great big grin on his face, oblivious to the dreadful symbolism contained within.

By all accounts Leuchter appears to be one of those individuals which the British, with their unsurpassed ability to pack as much multi-layered contempt into a phrase, would refer to as a “nasty little man,” one who is full of pride and not much in the way of self-reflection; you can hear the gods tripping over themselves as they race to be the first to subject Leuchter to their vengeance. This will not, needless to say, be the last evidence of Leuchter’s trampling over the sensibilities of others with hobnail boots, but it will be the last time he emerges unscathed from the experience; vengeance is exactly what he will receive, while director Errol Morris, the silent accompanist to Leuchter’s downfall, records each irrevocable step with presumed neutrality. Anyone familiar with Errol Morris’s work, however, knows that the glimpse of Leuchter in the chair is the point at which the both the subject of the film and the intensity of Morris’ gaze are about to be revealed.  Morris is the director, after all, who employs a recording device/method with the revealing name of “interrotron,”(best thought of as a system comprised of two teleprompters in which the interviewer and interviewed view each other’s responses in real time). By the end of the film, those teleprompters are going to seem less like recorders and more like judges.

What has Mr. Leuchter done which will make so many people so very angry with him?  Well, his first mistake was to make a trip to Auschwitz for yet another “refurbishing” project of sorts, this one an attempt to “reupholster” historical evidence which is not pleasing to a particular individual. Enter Ernst Zundel, a German émigré living in Toronto, Canada, who believes fervently that everything the world has ever learned about the outrages perpetrated upon the Jews and other unfortunates by the Nazis and their indigenous assistants is nothing more than a series of bald-faced lies meant to cast unjust aspersions upon an otherwise glorious (and, of course, otherwise spotless) German culture. In short, Zundel belongs to that substratum of ideological adherents known as the Holocaust Deniers. Now, if Zundel had only been able to stew quietly in his own noxious juice, Morris would have had no film to make. Instead, Zundel published his thoughts on the putatively mythological nature of the Holocaust, and thus, in 1988, found himself facing a maximum of twenty years in jail for disseminating hate literature under Canadian law. His desperate lawyer, who apparently had heard of Leuchter’s propensity for putting a quasi-scientific gloss on all matters deadly, contacted Leuchter with a request: Would Leuchter go to Auschwitz, all expenses paid, and conduct some testing to substantiate Zundel’s version of history? Mr. Leuchter, equally desperate, it seems, for publicity, rounds up his new bride and is on a plane to Poland with almost indecent haste.

What follows is a spectacle of mind-boggling bizarreness.  Leuchter runs around Auschwitz, measuring tape at the ready, arbitrarily chiseling samples from crematoria walls without official permission, all the while whining how Auschwitz doesn’t look like it’s supposed to (which is what, exactly?) and proclaiming that those facilities designated as drop sites for Zyklon B gas could not have been such because, in one of Mr. Leuchter’s priceless summations (one made, apparently, in all seriousness), “it’s not as if the SS had a death wish.”  The tone of the sequence lurches through varying levels of outrage, abominable taste, and black humor at will, the entire proceedings made worse by Leuchter’s obvious role as the half-witted Virgil, stomping over human remains and human pain . It’s as if Errol Morris had temporarily absconded from his directorial duties and allowed John Waters to step in to direct an entr’acte entitled Honeymoon in Auschwitz (with all due apologies to Mr. Waters).

Yet, for all of his obsessions about scrupulously adhering to the principles of scientific study and sample gathering, Leuchter obtains samples that are scientifically useless, but which render the results desired by the Zundel camp. Once the director of the lab where the samples were processed discovers what Leuchter is up to and where the samples actually came from (he had neglected to provide proper documentation with the samples, no doubt in the interest of scientific impartiality), the secret is out, Jewish organizations begin to protest and to pursue the bemused Leuchter, causing the trajectory of his life to take a far different, and much more cruelly ironic, route than the one he intended

For those looking in on the obsessive debate concerning the existence or non-existence of the gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps, it might seem as if this was a relatively trivial issue in comparison to the number of individuals exterminated in the name of Nazi ideology. Even Zundel’s other character witness for his 1988 trial, the somewhat infamous historian provocateur David Irving, often allows in his writings and public proclamations that some atrocities may have been committed by the Nazis against the Jews (albeit within the context of other wartime brutalities, thereby placing on the same level as those committed in Oradour or Lidice), but that gas chambers were not part of the overall Nazi plan.  Why is the methodology of killing given paramount status over the seemingly more monstrous act? The answer, as veteran Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg has trenchantly determined, is an outcome in which the historical stakes are higher than one might think. Interviewed for the February 2000 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, Hilberg is quoted as saying, “Once you have a gas chamber, you have a vision, and the vision is total annihilation.” Suddenly, the killing of large groups of people no longer appears to be, and can no longer be dismissed as, a random act initiated by a few local malcontents to keep hated neighbors “in their place”: if there are gas chambers in state-constructed institutions, then the state bears direct and ineluctable responsibility for its own genocidal will. There is, in short, nowhere for anyone involved, from those in charge to those who carry out the orders, to hide when the façade of moral ambiguity is torn away by historical fact. No wonder Ernst Zundel’s lawyer was quick to seize upon any pseudo-scientific pretext secured under the most questionable of circumstances to secure his client’s freedom and preserve his client’s illusions, because the blueprints and other documents that could have conclusively proven the existence of the gas chambers and of Nazi intentions were sitting in a German archive simply waiting to be discovered and read. Unfortunately, as Dutch architect and historian Robert Jan van Pelt mockingly suggests, perhaps Mr. Leuchter’s problem is his inability to understand German (van Pelt has no such difficulties; he is an expert on those very documents, and, through his research, has come to the logical conclusion that Auschwitz could have been built for no purpose other than to serve as a large-scale slave-labor/extermination facility). Mr. Leuchter does not live up to the promise prefigured in his name (yet another irony not addressed in the film: “die Leuchte” means “light” in German, and, in a figurative sense, can even mean "genius") and, in toiling away in intellectual darkness, ends up inadvertently being obliged to embrace it as a constant companion.

And what of Mr. Morris in all of this? He’s been sitting just outside the frame all of the time, but he’s never far from the debate, and he has never been a filmmaker to shy away from the controversial. With his 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, Morris hit, as it were, the documentarian’s equivalent of the jackpot: he was able to transform quiet outrage into genuine social change by exposing corruption and freeing an innocent man from Death Row -- truly a remarkable outcome fuelled by Morris’s own vast stockpiles of integrity and courage. Despite this act of remarkable justice, one cannot help but wonder, since Morris is an avowed death-penalty opponent, whether or not he is indulging in a bit of ideological sleight-of-hand in the case of the unremarkable Mr. Leuchter.  Is his depiction of Leuchter simply another attempt to ineptly illustrate Arendt’s “banality of evil” hypothesis? Is the audience simply supposed to savor Leuchter’s enforced embrace of the Far Right and his subsequent downfall without considering their ramifications? In a more extreme vein, is Morris trying to equate anyone who is in favor of any form of capital punishment with those who would deny the truth about the Holocaust? These extremely relevant questions are left unanswered, because Morris becomes too caught up in the very minor Greek tragedy that is Leuchter’s life.

Indeed, one might say he has become obsessed with watching Leuchter get what’s coming to him, precisely because Morris, as a member of the Jewish faith, is having difficulty distancing himself from an individual who affects him in two of the more vulnerable areas of his psyche, and, although one could understand, and sympathize with, Morris’ vulnerabilities in this case, he also has an obligation to address the issues he has raised, no matter how personally painful; no one should expect absolute impartiality from a documentary filmmaker, but no one should be subjected to the documentary equivalent of having the director’s hands loosed from the reins, thereby allowing the film to drift into intellectual chaos, especially when the stakes are as high as they are here. Thus, after the audience has set aside the cheap satisfaction derived from watching a foolish man swallowed up by his own self-made concoction of arrogance and naïveté, many of its members are likely to conclude that Mr. Death is a skillfully-rendered, fascinating, creepy but ultimately unsatisfying portrait of “evil” exposed. The film tells us more about the filmmaker (unintentionally) than it ever can about the previously self-satisfied Mr. Leuchter. Leuchter may have been done in by his refusal to respect the sacraments of others on more than one occasion, but he isn’t the only casualty here: Morris may have also recorded his own very minor Greek tragedy.

Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs's Interview.

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