Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Reviews
"he made things that killed people" is interesting enough, especially given that he seemed to completely stumble into it. Who would have thought that one could just suddenly end up in the execution business? Further, why would someone want to stumble into this? Take pride in it even?
Well, this one goes further still as Leuchter Jr. also stumbles into Holocaust denial, always seeming completely convinced in his own viewpoints and never feeling that any of his actions are questionable in any way. It's ludicrous to legitimately funny levels but at the same time, it's real, and it has real consequences and 'Mr Death' is every bit as much about the nature off true evil as it is the story of just some guy who happens to be an oddball.
Despite his simple manner he has an aura of him that is rather unsettling...he seems to enjoy his work too much.
The third act of the film focuses on his unhealthy support of a famous anti holocaust believer. It's a strange film but well worth a watch.
(1999) Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, JR
Oddball psychological character study about Fred A. Leuchter, Jr who makes a living building and upgrading devices/ equipments such as lethal injection tables, electricution chairs and gallows for inmates who are on death row, life starting to spiral downhill once making it his mission to disproving claims about the existence of gas chambers used to occur in Nazi concentration camps. Interviewer and documentary filmmaker Errol Morris only spoken words heard throughout the whole film only occured toward the end and it probably liven it up despite viewer's stance on it and on Leuchter.
3 out of 4 stars
The first act is all rather mundane, but here that's a good thing. Instead of a politicized condemnation or exaltation of the death penalty, Morris opts for an intriguing and low key character study. Perhaps the number of cups of coffee someone drinks in a day, or the amount of cigarettes they smoke, may not seem like the most intimate or even remotely interesting aspects of someone's life, but they really are quite effective in defining the character. Through the use of reenactments, love them or hate them, these trivialities work to flesh out the character in exactly the way Morris wants him to be.
This manipulation, which is nearly impossible to avoid in any medium of storytelling, becomes much more obvious in the second and third acts. When Mr. Leuchter begins to question the authenticity of what we have been told about the Holocaust it becomes much more clear what Morris is trying to do. Surreptitiously introducing those who present their support for Mr. Leuchter as, "Historical Revisionists", and those who disagree with him plainly as historians, is a rather conniving way to discredit someone.
I applaud the film for treating this character, that many people vehemently oppose, sympathetically, although the cynic in me might confuse this sympathy with pity. And I appreciate its attempts to avoid emotion filled rhetoric. However I can not fully endorse anything which supports, even in such a subdued manner, such a dangerous way of thinking. Fred Leuchter, at least as he is presented to us in the film, does not seem to be anti-semitic, he has not decided that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz to spite those murdered during the Holocaust. He has come to this conclusion as a result of his own research. We must not as a society assault the search for truth with emotional lobbying and bitter ad hominem attacks simply because it doesn't conform with what is considered morally acceptable at the time. That there almost certainly were gas chambers at Auschwitz is irrelevant, social acceptability must not be a requisite of truth.
That being said, Mr. Death is still a well told story, just one that may have been consumed by something bigger than itself.
It is actually surprisingly easy to feel sorry for Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Yes, his work was horribly flawed. It helped give false support to one of the most odious claims in all of conspiracism--the one I routinely forget about when I list conspiracies because it's so much more complicated than the others. He was unqualified to make the studies he did, and he is now unwilling to acknowledge that his results were fatally flawed. However, you have to look at his life and realize that he has always been told that he is capable of doing things he is not. He managed before; he did not manage this time. His life has fallen apart because of it, and it seems apparent that he doesn't understand why. I doubt anyone would be capable of explaining it to him in a way that would get through to him, and it seems that a basically good man may now have been lost to a hateful group he would otherwise never have known.
Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., got his start by creating an improvement to the electric chair. His father had, in fact, been a prison guard, so Fred came by his interest naturally, as you might say. And for some reason--even Leuchter isn't entirely sure why--someone decided that a man who could design an electric chair could design a lethal injection system. So he did. And then there were gallows; he made those, too. And then, of all things, he got a call about one Ernst Zündel. Zündel was on trial in Canada for publishing things he knew to be false that were likely to increase racial hatred. Specifically, that the Holocaust never happened. Zündel and his defenders hired Leuchter and sent him to Auschwitz to test the remains of the gas chambers for evidence of cyanide gas. Because, you know, that was totally something Leuchter was qualified to do. He went to Auschwitz. He took samples. He sent the samples to a lab. And the lab results showed no signs of cyanide on the samples.
Well, sort of. You see, documentarian Errol Morris interviews the chemist who performed the tests, James Roth, and the tests he performed were in no way accurate for what Leuchter wanted. In an attempt, I guess, at getting unbiased results, Leuchter didn't tell the lab where the samples came from. Which is fair enough. But instead of testing the surfaces, the only place you would expect to find cyanide, the chemist pulverized the samples and tested the whole thing, and that would obviously skew results. Especially given how large some of the samples were and how thin the cyanide deposits would be. What's more, Leuchter made untenable assumptions about his sampling technique, ignoring the effects that fifty years of weathering, for example, would have on things and claiming that everything at Auschwitz had remained exactly the same the whole time. It is, in short, a very good example of why you need to know what you're doing in order to produce accurate results.
Equally disgusted with Leuchter's techniques is historian Robert Jan Van Pelt, who presents for the camera just a little of the documentation available there in Auschwitz of exactly what happened there. Leuchter says he would expect to find evidence of a ventilation system; Van Pelt shows the blueprints, the order forms, and so forth--and the information showing why the system itself isn't there anymore. Van Pelt, in fact, seems to blame Sherlock Holmes for the whole thing. Leuchter expects the best evidence to be on the walls, and after these many years, the archives are a better place to start. The inescapable conclusion is that Zündel knew that a qualified historian would not present the result he wanted, so he rigged the deck. (It should be noted that it didn't work, and he was convicted.) Leuchter doesn't even read German or Polish, surely an important skill for anyone doing primary research at Auschwitz. By showing us Van Pelt, Morris makes it very obvious why Leuchter's results are untrustworthy.
I really do blame that first person who said, "Yes, this man who makes electric chairs is perfect to design our lethal injection system!" And after all, hardly anyone now uses Leuchter's lethal injection system, because it's too complicated. (Well, he also has a hard time finding work these days, for some reason.) His goals in preventing execution from being painful are admirable. However, he was assumed to be more competent than he really was, and he came to believe it himself. He has no qualifications in the kind of history or chemistry he would need to be the kind of expert he has come to believe himself to be. In the only moment in the whole film where Morris speaks, he asks Leuchter if he's considered the possibility that his conclusions are wrong, and Leuchter says that he can no longer accept that it is true. However, true science means always knowing you might be wrong. Leuchter not only doesn't seem to know that, he doesn't know why his conclusions might upset his former Jewish friends.
The documentary Mr. Death gives consideration to something I never really thought about. When a person goes to be executed by the state, where does the execution machine come from? I admit that I never imagined anyone sitting over a drafting table working out the blueprints for such a device.
Yet, having heard Fred Leuchter Jr. (pronounced "Look-Ter") speak about his job, I can say that if anyone must to build such a device, it might as well be him. He seems to know what he's talking about. His name is sort of legendary (I would guess so . . . is there another person who does this?) When the State of New Jersey contacted him to be a consultant on the proposal of the design of a lethal injection machine, he agreed but admitted that he didn't have the first idea how to design one. The doctor's presentation to the deputy commissioner of the prison wasn't going well, until the doctor mentioned that Leuchter designed the cap for the prison's electric chair. The commissioner's eyes lit up and he was sold on the idea without another word. Most of us could only wish to have a reputation that solid.
Leuchter looks a little peculiar but you wouldn't expect someone who holds such a position to look anything but out of place. He's short, with a round face, big glasses and a thick New England accent. He resembles a very dowdy cousin of Elton John. Even if you have no objection to his work, you have to admit that there is an heir about him that wouldn't make you eager to invite him to tea. He is a man, however, that you want to listen to. He has odd stories and anecdotes that either intrigue or repulse depending on your personal taste. I can only speculate that his circle of close friends is a bit small, especially when you consider that one of his bits of knowledge involves the ins and outs of how dangerous it is to be in the death chamber electrocuting someone with urine on the floor from the previous execution. With that nugget of information and his habit of drinking 40 cups of coffee a day and smoking 6 packs of cigarettes, I would imagine that he isn't exactly a fun date. Based on that addictions, I wasn't too surprised to learn that he eventually married a waitress.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. not only examines Leuchter's work, but also the turning point that cost him his job and his reputation. That came with his association with Ernst Zundel, a neo-Nazi who went on trial for public slander after he published a report stating that the holocaust was a myth. In 1988, the two traveled to Auschwitz to collect concrete samples from the remains of the gas chamber to prove that no traces of Zychlon B (the lethal gas that was used to kill Jews in the gas chambers) was present. Those samples were going to be used in Zundel's case to prove that he was right about his claims. The science was flawed and the jury was biased. What happened to Leuchter's reputation was a full-frontal assault on very the idea of free speech. His views and his mere association in the Zundel case cost him everything. He became a pariah, a lamb to the slaughter just for speaking his newly acquired views against the holocaust. Whether he meant it or was just saying it to impress some new friends hardly matters. The fact that he said them was damning enough.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr comes from one of the most creative minds to ever to work in the arena of documentaries. Erroll Morris never plays it safe. His films are never about ordinary people doing ordinary things. He loves the circus freaks among us, people who do and are obsessed with odd things. He made: Gates of Heaven, about the owners of a pet cemetery in Southern California; Vernon, Florida about various weirdos in the title town including a man who lives, breaths, eats and sleeps and dreams turkey hunting; The Thin Blue Line a film about a murder in a small town that was so persuasive that it sparked a reopening of the case; A Brief History of Time about the life and theories of Stephen Hawking who discusses his understanding of the vastness of the universe while suffering from a condition that renders him almost completely unable to move.
Here again, Morris chooses someone out of the ordinary. Fred Leuchter Jr. is an odd little man with a ghoulish job, who takes up with the wrong side of the holocaust and doesn't resend it in order to save his reputation. Why? What happens to Leuchter's reputation once he takes the side of the Neo-Nazis is, I think, criminal. He chose the wrong friends, said the wrong things and made people believe what he was saying simply by saying it. Was he a Neo-Nazi? Who knows? Who cares? Leuchter is a product of our times, times in which verbal intolerance is put on the shelf with mass murder, when people are so outraged by the act of being offended that they commit a character assassination of a man just for publicly stating his opinion. What happened to him was a pitiful revelation that words and kill just has inhumanely as a botched electric chair.