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Posted Wednesday, December 29, 1999

Reviews of the Fred Leuchter film


New York, December 29, 1999


 Errol Morris.

Irony, Stephen King once said, is good for the blood.

I'm not so sure. The irony on display in Errol Morris' "Mr. Death:The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr." is more like a straight shot of strychnine.

The title character of this fascinating, deceptively chilling documentary is a Massachusettes engineer and second generation prision careerist who thinks of himself as a Death Row Angel. He's an outspoken opponent of the electric chair and other primitive forms of state-ordered killings, and the designer of the most pain-free method of executionin the country.

It is Leuchter's drip/blend lethal-injection system, by which he so proudly stands, that is sending convicted killers to their makers on what would seem a veritable cloud of sleep. He makes the lethal-injection gurney sound more like a Beautyrest mattress than a death slab.

Yet during the making of this movie -- and with Morris and film crew in tow -- Leuchter travels to Auschwitz, Leuchter, Fred Leuchter, Leuchter Report, with a commission from infamous Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel to study the death camps and their showers to determine if any gassing actually occurred there. His conclusion: Absolutely Not! The juxtaposition of Leuchter's double boast -- of his kindness to condemned strangers and his lab-tested demystifications of the Holocaust - makes him one of the scariest characters I've seen in a movie in a very long time.

Fred LeuchterWhat makes him scary, rather than, say, just another Holocaust-denying wack job, is his offhand satisfaction with his work, his quick acceptance of errant logic and his eagerness to postulate premature theories that become confirming evidence in the tapioca minds of the Holocaust-deniers.

Morris' forte as a documentarian -- and masterworks like "Gates of Heaven" and "Fast Cheap & Out of Control" have established him as one of the very best -- is to guide his subjects into revealing monologues, to give them, apropros our subject, enough rope to hang themselves.

And hang himself Leuchter does.

In an early edit, Morris made Leuchter a one-man show, talking directly to the camera via Morris' new Interrotron, a twin-camera, twin-monitor apparatus that juxtaposes the interviewers face over the camera lens, creating a strange intimacy between Interviewee and audience.

Apparently, Morris felt that Leuchter's split-seam morality would be apparent to anyone looking into his eyes, without added context from him.

Instead, some test viewers of the rough cut found Leuchter's argument about the showers credible. After all, he is a government-sanctioned expert on executions. He ought to know a death chamber when he's in one.

Morris decided not to take any chances, and the "Mr. Death" opening in theaters today does not include expert testimony about Leuchter's amateurish science at Auschwitz.

The power of "Mr. Death" is not diminished by the extra material, largely because Leuchter is such a representative figure in his own right. It's not that he is inherently evil, but that he's an average person of limited knowledge with unlimited confidence -- a can-do guy with the soul of an executioner.

He would have made a fine Nazi.

Related stories on Fred Leuchter: the Movie ("Mr Death"):

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