Monday, April 11, 2016
Director Report Card: Errol Morris (1999)
The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
The long hiatus that followed between “A Brief History of Time” and “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” didn’t immediately repeat itself. Within a year, Errol Morris was working on a new project. Back in the eighties, Morris nearly made a movie about a character named “Dr. Death.” In the late nineties, the documentarian made a film called “Mr. Death.” The new film would continue the revival of interest in Morris as a filmmaker, winning yet more rave reviews and positive attention.
Fred A. Leuchter Jr. began his career as an engineer. The son of a corrections officer, Leuchter was struck by how cruel execution by electric chair was. Despite a lack of formal training as an expert in capital punishment, Leuchter would quickly become a much sought technician for machines designed to kill people. Through his work with gas chambers, Leuchter would follow down an unexpected path. When Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel was put on trial for publishing hate speech, Leuchter was chosen to testify on Zundel’s behalf. A lack of knowledge of the Holocaust, history, or how poison gas dissipates didn’t stop Leuchter from proclaiming that the Holocaust never happened.
“Mr. Death” seems to begin as a documentary about a quirky subject discussing his unusual career, not dissimilar to “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.” Obviously, somebody has to design the electric chairs, gas chambers, and gallows. Yet you don’t often think about who that person must be. Fred Leuchter cuts the figure of someone deeply lacking in self-awareness. He’s designing machines that kill people. Yet he constantly discusses how he’s watching out for the comfort of the condemned. While discussing a lethal injection machine, he mentions how the intended should be seated in a comfy, upright chair while watching TV or listening to music. He does realize these people are going to die, doesn’t he? Why would the government pay for the comfort of someone who is going to be dead soon, anyway? How far does basic humanity extend? Leuchter discusses the morbid details of burning flesh, leaking urine and oozing corpses with a matter-of-fact quality. He grasps the seriousness of what he did without understanding many of the smaller aspects.
“Mr. Death” takes a serious turn about a half-hour in, after the conclusion of the first act. Leuchter’s alliance with the Holocaust denial crowd is slowly revealed. During the first half of the film, Fred went on about how he didn’t have any expertise in engineering implements of death, much less chemistry. Despite this, or more likely because of it, holocaust deniers (who sickeningly described themselves as “revisionist historians”) tapped Leuchter as their expert. There’s video footage of Leuchter stumbling through Auschwitz, climbing into holes, chiseling at walls. In voice-over, we hear Fred’s ex-wife bitterly describe the trip, which she spent in a cold car. Leuchter insists there’s no sign of poison gas on the camp walls… Which ignores the chemical fragility of Zyklone B. Not to mention the mountains of other evidence, of photographs, videos, paperwork, letters, and countless eye-witness testimonials.
Without being precisely about holocaust denial, “Mr. Death” gives us insight into the mindset of believers. Ernst Zundel, the man Leuchter was called on to defend, is interviewed. Outside evidence makes it clear that Zundel is a hardcore Neo-Nazi. Within the film, he presents himself as a proud German, determined to clear his country of a crime he believes didn’t happen. One of Zundel’s publisher, who would publish Leuchter’s statement, literally seems to believe that there’s more evidence to suggest the holocaust didn’t happen then evidence that suggest it did. I frequently assume that all Holocaust deniers are hardened anti-Semites, who just pretend the Holocaust didn’t happen in order to further justify their hatred of Jewish people. “Mr. Death” presents something far more frightening: These people are serious. Their denial of history and fact is sincere.
Errol Morris’ initial cut of “Mr. Death” was already shorter then the still brief ninety minute run time of the current version. At first, the film was only composed of interviews with Leuchter. Test audiences felt the film didn’t properly condemn Leuchter or his beliefs. Morris – who is Jewish, by the way – felt holocaust denial was obviously ridiculous and repugnant and assumed audiences felt the same. Afterwards, Morris included new interviews of people pointing out the obvious holes in Leuchter’s science: Namely, his ignorance of the mountains of other evidence or his clueless handling of his mission.
Yet even with these interviews, “Mr. Death” takes an impressive third turn. Leuchter’s holocaust denial obviously destroyed his career and left his personal life in tatters. No prisons would buy his designs. His wife left him. The only work he could get was speaking engagements at Neo-Nazi rallies, which is hardly something anyone would want on their resume. He is a sad, bitter, broken man with zero opportunists. Most of “Mr. Death” shows how foolish his beliefs are. In its final minutes, the film manages to make us feel sorry for him. Does a man deserve to have his life destroyed because of his beliefs? Does being wrong – perhaps even evil – mean someone doesn’t deserve to have a happy life? These are some of the questions “Mr. Death” has the viewer asking.
Caleb Sampson’s equally sinister and quirky score, “Mr. Death” is one of Errol Morris’ most underrated films. It didn’t receive the praise and awards many of the filmmaker’s other pictures did. You don’t hear about it as often as his more beloved documentaries. Don’t let this dissuade you from checking it out. “Mr. Death” revolves around a man who is, in his own way, a fascinating figure. Like Morris’ best work, it uses a simple set-up to prompt complex questions in the audience. [Grade: A-]