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 Posted Thursday, January 28, 1999

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January 27, 1999

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PARK CITY, Utah - Errol Morris, America's most accomplished documentary filmmaker, has made his first Holocaust film. It's terrific - the kind of picture that keeps you awake at night - and it will surely become part of the Holocaust film canon.

But it's not going to win Morris any awards from the Anti-Defamation League, to say nothing of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." crawls inside the mind of a mild-mannered Massachusetts fellow who has, almost inadvertently, become one of the leading lights of the Holocaust-denial movement.

The film, which is unfinished and without a distributor, is not interested in condemning Leuchter; rather, it seeks to understand the creepy little man and tell us something deeply unsettling about his capacity for evil. The most chilling aspect of "Mr. Death" is the unshakable feeling that it's about its audience as much as its subject.

Morris became ill with the flu while at the Sundance Film Festival and canceled his interviews to fly home to Cambridge, Mass. The director did participate in question-and-answer sessions following "Mr. Death" screenings, where he heard some complaints that the film didn't take a hard enough line against Leuchter and the Holocaust deniers. Reid Rosefelt, Morris' longtime friend and publicist, said most people want the Holocaust dealt with in good-vs.-evil terms.

"Meanwhile, you have Bosnia, and Pol Pot, on the news every night, and people making excuses for genocide, saying it's time to put the past behind us and move on. We just accept that," Rosefelt said. "Errol is much more interested in saying that Leuchter is us. That's not a message people are willing to celebrate."

Fred Leuchter (pronounced "LOOSH-ter") is a self-described engineer whose thorough averageness - his slight physical stature, genial conversational style and homely, jug-eared face taken from a Norman Rockwell portrait - belies his peculiar fascination with the mechanics of execution. He traces his macabre interest back to his childhood visits with his prison-guard father.

Leuchter's knowledge of electric chairs, gallows and the like earned him consulting positions with state penitentiaries. He made a nice living analyzing execution devices and redesigning them to make for more humane and efficient killing machines.

His expertise even earned him a phone call from Ernst Zundel, a neo-Nazi who was born in Germany and now lives in Toronto. In 1988, the Canadian government put Zundel on trial for disseminating material denying the Holocaust. Hired by Zundel, Leuchter and a small crew visited Auschwitz, where they illegally chiseled samples from the walls of the gas chambers and smuggled them back to the United States.

A lab analysis showed no significant traces of cyanide residue. That, and Leuchter's on-site assessment of gas-chamber architecture, led him to conclude that no gassings had been committed at Auschwitz. That was his testimony to the Canadian court.

THOUGH  the court refused to allow "The Leuchter Report" into evidence, the document quickly became a "smoking gun" among the international Holocaust-denial movement. It has been widely disseminated in those circles, and people such as British revisionist-historian David Irving appear in the Morris film praising both the report and the heroism of the "mouse of a man" who produced it.

Of course "The Leuchter Report" is an absurd document of pseudo-science, as the Morris film easily demonstrates. Jim Roth, the scientist who performed the lab analysis of the Auschwitz fragments, says that he didn't know where the material came from, and explains why the tests he performed would not have detected cyanide. Historian Robert Jan Van Pelt, who has made the study of Auschwitz his life's work, demolishes the credibility of Leuchter's conclusions beyond a shadow of a doubt. "Mr. Death," it should be made clear, is not about the validity of "The Leuchter Report," but an investigation into how and why a man like Fred Leuchter can believe such pernicious nonsense.

Leuchter reportVan Pelt chalks up the strange, sad case of Fred Leuchter to vanity, to the man's unassailable belief in his own judgment and expertise. Near the film's end, Leuchter, who has lost everything because of "The Leuchter Report," tells Morris that he never doubts himself.

Furthermore, he even sees himself as something of a humanitarian. In the film, Leuchter talks at length about the utterly gruesome effects of electrocution - the "eyeballs flying across the room," the "meat ... coming off the bones like a cooked chicken" - as being examples of the most humane ways to kill a person.

"Mr. Death" is perhaps the most arresting explication of Hannah Arendt's famous phrase "the banality of evil" since Albert Camus' novel "The Stranger." Arendt said she meant that this "new type of criminal" is a man who commits his acts "under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible to know or feel that he is doing wrong."

But does that excuse Leuchter from moral culpability for the pernicious use to which neo-Nazis are putting his work? No, but one sees a source of great anxiety in the troubling possibility that contemporary audiences, who have largely lost the ability for moral discernment, will pity Leuchter, or even admire him for standing up for his beliefs.

This is what will put Morris on the hot seat when the finished version of "Mr. Death" hits theaters, possibly next year (Rosefelt says Morris may try to have it shown first at the Toronto and New York film festivals in the fall).

The director obviously wants audiences to realize that the potential for evil exists in all of us. In this sense, "Mr. Death" is both an exploration of the enigma of human evil and a cautionary tale about hubris.

There's a line from Leuchter regarding his work with prisons which perhaps suggests the kind of response "Mr. Death" may receive from those who fight Holocaust deniers. "A lot of people are not interested, are morally opposed to working on execution," Leuchter tells Morris. "They think it's going to change them."

Similarly, some people are going to be uninterested or morally opposed to this brilliant, extraordinary film, which puts an all-too-human face on terrible evil. They will be afraid it will change minds, and not for the better.

Copyright (c) 1998, N.Y.P. Holdings, Inc.

January 26, 1999
They're Obsessed With Obsession

Many movies in this year's lineup focus on the deep, dark currents in human nature.

By KENNETH TURAN, Times Film Critic

PARK CITY, Utah--Like God's pure snow, which traditionally arrives in this skiing town just in time to delight nature-starved moviegoers, obsessive behavior in general and sexual obsessiveness in particular have blanketed the Sundance Film Festival. And don't think that hasn't been noticed.

The first screening of "American Pimp," the Hughes Brothers' candid and dispiriting documentary look at what they call "the most mythical figure in black culture," created a scene of such bedlam that festival-goer/heartthrob Ben Affleck, among others, was nearly trampled in the uncaring crush to get in. The scene was only marginally calmer at "Sex: The Annabel Chong Story," an erratic documentary look at the life and career of someone schlockmeister Jerry Springer eagerly introduced to his TV audience by trumpeting, "This woman had sex with 251 men in 10 hours." Dressed in a severe black tunic and jeans, the self-possessed Chong told the post-screening audience that her career in pornography was partly motivated by a desire to "break down gender stereotypes, stereotypes of the porn chick as a bimbo, a coke-addicted victim."

Master documentarian Errol Morris ("Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," "The Thin Blue Line") is no stranger to obsession, or to Sundance, for that matter, a place he says he prepares for by "spending 72 hours in a meat locker with people I don't like, and all of them have cell phones." Morris was in Park City before Sundance was Sundance, debuting his first feature, the pet cemetery-themed "Gates of Heaven," at the Egyptian Theater back in 1978. "There was a snowstorm, I was staying in a Godforsaken condo and I only had a small idea of where it was located," Morris remembers. "I had to hitchhike back there, and I was picked up by people who'd been in the theater and had hated the movie. They asked me what I thought, and since I had no alternative means of transportation, I said I, too, was extremely disappointed."

Morris' new documentary, "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.," underlines that when it comes to depicting obsessive behavior, Morris has no peer. This strange, disturbing but never less than compelling film is sure to be one of the most provocative he has made--and for Morris, that's saying something. Leuchter first came to Morris' attention as a kind of engineering Mr. Fixit for the nation's means of legal execution, someone who believed in what the director calls "one of my favorite oxymorons, painless execution."

Once he interviewed him, however, Morris became aware that there were two Fred Leuchters: "Fred the self-styled execution technologist and Fred the Holocaust denier. The combination seemed overwhelming, so much so that though there were many articles written about Fred, nothing combined these two elements. It was if they could not be addressed in one place, a crazy kosher idea of separating milk and meat." A self-described "obsessive character in my own right," Morris was attracted to Leuchter in part, as he's been to other obsessives, because of "seeing the Everyman in them, which is a very frightening thought."

Describing how Leuchter came to believe that no one was gassed at Auschwitz also fascinated the director because of his own long-standing desire to make a Holocaust film, to "find a different way into that subject matter. The struggle about whether the Holocaust happened is at its heart about something very deep and disturbing, a struggle over good and evil. It's struck me many times: If history is up for grabs, what meaning do good and evil have?"

A documentarian who believes "if you let people alone to talk long enough, they will reveal who they really are by how they use language," Morris says that one of the themes of "Mr. Death" is "how we can convince ourselves of anything. One person I know contrasted this film to 'Schindler's List.' If that film's thesis is 'Anyone can be a hero,' mine has the far more disturbing thesis that 'Anyone can think they're a hero.' "

Our opinion
WE can't wait to see what Morris has made of this subject. Please keep these clippings coming to us and we will post them here. We know Fred Leuchter, and we like and admire him as a human being.
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