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Posted Wednesday, December 29, 1999

 Wall Street Journal

New York, December 31, 1999


Film: "Mr. Death"


Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the subject of Errol Morris's remarkable new documentary "Mr. Death," has a floating, tilting compass on the dashboard of his car, but he seems to lack a moral compass entirely. An unprepossessing man with thick glasses and a flickering, acidulous smile, Mr. Leuchter used to build, restore and maintain execution machines -- electric chairs, gallows, gas chambers and lethal-injection rigs. Leuchter, sans auto

At the same time he considered himself a humanitarian, indeed a benefactor, because his machines killed quickly and efficiently. There's "no difference in a life-support system and an execution system," he insists; both must function flawlessly or fail. His quiet madness, or dark dream-state of denial, remains undisturbed by overt emotion as the film goes on, but it ramifies, almost metastasizes, into something deeper.

Mr. Leuchter, we learn, subsequently became a Holocaust denier, and not just any Holocaust denier but the pseudo-scientist whose crackpot research -- "The Leuchter Report" -- has been embraced as objective truth by neo-Nazis around the world. Eventually his views made him all but unemployable in the state-sanctioned killing business, and he came to see himself as an innocent victim of persecution.

Both phases of his life had previously been noted in the public record, first in articles about his work as an execution engineer, then in accounts of his role as an expert witness in the 1988 trial of a neo-Nazi in Toronto. Until Mr. Morris came along, though, no one seems to have connected the phases. "Mr. Death" would have been instructive if it were only a single case study in human denial -- a chilling demonstration of how one ostensibly sane human being could reduce the killing of others to matters of engineering technique. But the film makes a compelling case for another proposition -- that by examining Fred Leuchter's state of mind we can better understand how the Holocaust occurred.

Like Errol Morris's "The Thin Blue Line," "Mr. Death" invites controversy. It mixes extraordinary documentary footage -- including scenes of Fred Leuchter poking around Auschwitz with a hammer and chisel -- with stylized re-creations, and with visual tropes, some worthy of David Lynch, that comment on the woozy quality of Mr. Leuchter's mental processes. (Slippery as such embellishments may be, I find them acceptable in Mr. Morris's hands because they're so clearly discernible.) Yet the filmmaker never demonizes his subject, or denies his humanity. To the contrary, "Mr. Death" wants us to see how one of them can also be one of us. .

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