Original release: December 29th, 1999
Running time: 91 minutes
Writer and director: Errol Morris
Cast: Fred Leuchter, David Irving, Ernst Zündel
To think about death is a natural phenomenon among human beings. It’s the inevitable end to every story, good or bad; the unbiased time bomb ticking away our lives; the source of the evergreen question – what is the meaning of life?
It’s quite easy to speak of death and seem profound, and this was perhaps one of the things I feared would happen as I sat down to watch Errol Morris’ Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999). For what new thing could he have to say about the subject? But the fresh angle that Morris takes is a delight to witness.
Mr. Death is about Fred Leuchter, an execution technician who built electric chairs that assuaged the fates of death row inmates in the U.S. The moral thread that runs through the question of the death penalty is suspended in this film, as Morris tells the fascinating tale of the man behind the execution equipment, who rose to fame with his “expertise” in his chosen profession and then on to infamy with his holocaust denying report. The film thus brings about two very important and controversial topics that are connected to each other seamlessly in the form of Fred Leuchter.
In terms of filmmaking, Morris’s form of storytelling and editing give it a certain appeal akin to fiction-film. This is enhanced, perhaps, by his lead character, Leuchter, who himself seems like a fictional persona out of a novel. He’s a fascinating man to watch as he talks matter-of-factly about his life as an execution expert, what he thinks about the death penalty and the manner in which he takes pride in his work. It’s a profession that he stumbled into when he saw an execution of a prisoner by an electric chair and discovered the many kinks in the machinery that should ideally be capable of enabling a painless and humane death.
The film goes on to highlight his career beginning with the electric chair and moving on to lethal injection equipment, until he was finally asked to examine the gas chambers in Auschwitz. The proof he collected during these examinations and the conclusions that led him to believe in a revisionist history are what caused him to come under public scrutiny.
What stands out in the film is Morris’s handling of the subject. He allows Leuchter to tell his story without any obvious editorial interference. He’s shown to be just another ordinary human being with a daily routine that includes an extraordinary amount of coffee. He talks about how he met his wife at the diner he frequents. We’re given a slice of his life outside of his work. The reason that Morris didn’t go to great lengths to refute his theories on the holocaust (only a few interviews are shown that discredit Leuchter’s claims) is possibly because Leuchter digs himself a hole.
He includes a lot of needless descriptions of things like the drawings he made of the concentration camp with “arrows” that were proof enough for him to state that Auschwitz was not a gas chamber. He seems satisfied with the small amount of research he did and the small amount of samples he collected. In order to overcompensate for this lack of training and investigation, he described it in great detail to give it the appearance of a well researched statement. He seems almost silly, like a child who got thrown into a large stadium with a ginormous task at hand, and since he couldn’t stand up to what was required of him, he deluded himself enough to rid himself of the fear of unpreparedness.
He went in there with cameras and kept logs, giving the impression that he took himself too seriously. He asked himself simple/ridiculous questions, questions to which he had the answers, or to which no one could possibly have any answers and thereby concluded that there was no proof of the holocaust.
There’s still a modicum of sympathy felt by us as we realize he was just a naïve man with an incredibly difficult task that fell into his lap through circumstances out of his control. The brand of “expert” that he was given came out of happy chance more than actual prowess in the field. He himself states in the beginning of the film that he was approached by many state prisons to correct equipment that he had little knowledge about, simply because the real experts found it immoral to be a part of the process.
He seemed to be the only man willing to do the job with limited proficiency in anything but the electric chair. This cycle of employment eventually led him to be approached by Revisionist historian, Ernst Zündel, to examine the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Morris navigates through Leuchter’s life with the finesse of a skilled biographer and for this reason and many more, I found it to be a most enjoyable documentary despite (because of) its intense nature.
Nandini is currently pursuing her Masters degree in Film Studies from Queen Mary University of London. She aspires to work in television, preferably developing shows. She enjoys writing and maintains a blog that contains her short stories, poems and other musings.
Nandini also loves all sports, including football, and is a supporter of Arsenal. Follow her on Twitter @nandini_godara.