Documentary maestro Morris paints an eerie portrait of execution expert who denies the Holocaust
Talk about your creepy documentaries, "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." is the weird, disturbing, interview and re-enactment account of an acquiescent electrical engineer who was once the country's foremost authority on execution equipment.
A death penalty supporter but an advocate of humane execution, through years of self-taught expertise in electrocution, lethal injection and other forms of government-sanctioned death, Fred Leuchter -- a balding, thick glasses-and-pocket protector science wonk -- became a consultant to many states on the safety and lethal efficiency of their chosen forms of capital punishment.
Without any accredited medical training, he devised the hands-free, nearly infallible lethal injection system currently used to extinguish most death row inmates in America. Before that, he designed and built -- in his basement-- equipment for testing the reliability and safety of electric chairs. Then moved on to building the chairs themselves.
An interesting (if uncanny) character to be sure, but what garnered the attention of documentary maestro Errol Morris ("Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," "A Brief History of Time," "The Thin Blue Line") wasn't Leuchter's lack of qualms about his chosen profession. It was his lack of qualms about is his ties to the Holocaust denial movement, which eventually cost him his reputation, such as it was, and most of his governmental contracts.
In 1988s, Canadian neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel commissioned Leuchter to conduct an on-the-sneak forensic investigation debunking the gas chamber mass murders at Auschwitz, in order to help fight charges of Holocaust denial (a crime north of the border). This film recounts the untrained Leuchter's amateur sleuthing at the prison camp (through footage taken by a film crew he had in tow) and the uproar it created.
Morris gives Leuchter time presents his arguments and evidence -- mostly poorly-cataloged mortar samples that show few traces of cyanide. Then interviews historians and real forensic scientists who shoot holes his findings with relative ease.
Creepy, laughable, sad and appalling, what makes "Mr. Death" absorbing is the way it gets under Leuchter's skin (he drinks 40 cups of coffee a day and smokes six packs of cigarettes), trying to understand his adamant defense of his wildly unreliable conclusions. Is he a anti-Semite? A ultra-rightist puppet? An insecure ignoramus clinging to his conclusions for the hero worship they have inspired in the Holocaust denial movement?
An expert at creating fascination from fact, before unveiling the shocking crux of his documentary, Morris builds backstory (and an anti-death-penalty bent) using Leuchter's on-screen history lesson of execution in America and his eerily matter-of-fact detailing of the implementation of electrocution, gas and lethal injection deaths.
A filmmaker first and fact-finder second, he never pretends to be terribly neutral, lighting the complacent Leuchter like a B-movie mad scientist for interview sequences and hurting the picture's credibility with staged footage that recreates the parts of Leuchter's Auschwitz examination the subject didn't capture himself with his camera crew as they sneaked around the concentration camp taking seemingly random measurements and samples.
But while "Mr. Death" certainly troubles the soul, the impression it leaves is more manipulative horror-tainment (aerial footage of Warsaw under Nazi occupation transitions theatrically into the Auschwitz segment) than Morris should be comfortable with.
But as such, it is a masterfully-made movie, fascinating and frightening on so many levels that it's certainly worth seeing once.