© Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. — Errol Morris / Lions Gate Releasing
1999, 96 minutes
While Errol Morris’s Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. participates in the ever-increasing—and one could argue, overcrowded— subgenre of Holocaust documentary filmmaking, the movie could hardly be characterized as a traditional Holocaust story. A portrayal of the depth to which human beings are capable of self-deception, Mr. Death probes what led Fred. A Leuchter Jr.—an eccentric execution system engineer from Massachusetts—to preach Holocaust denial in neo-Nazi conferences across the world. Recognized, despite his obvious lack of expertise, for his work in penitentiaries within the United States, Leuchter precipitated his own downfall with The Leuchter Report (1988), a bizarre pseudoscientific document held by deniers since its publication as a watershed moment in our perception of the Holocaust, and proof of a large-scale conspiracy.
Structured around significant events in Leuchter’s life, Mr. Death simultaneously investigates how Leuchter engages with the past and perceives the world around him. The narrative structure is largely chronological; the first part of the movie (30 min.) focuses on Leuchter’s work as a successful designer of execution equipment, while the second part addresses Leuchter’s fateful involvement with negationist theories and subsequent trip to Poland.
Morris—reiterating his belief that “truth isn’t guaranteed by style”—decided to employ many of the stylistic devices used throughout his career to enhance Leuchter’s moral ambiguities and contradictions. Starting with the opening credit sequence—which one may associate more with experimental or fiction cinema than conventional documentary filmmaking—when Leuchter stands unperturbed in the middle of an apocalyptic blast of movement, color and sound. Surely, this sequence is a nod to what’s to come, since Morris continuously uses all three elements to further investigate his character’s subjectivity. As the scenes oscillate randomly between color and black-and-white, and as changes in focus or camera angle occur, the audience is invited to consider different sides of Leuchter’s personality. In one of the most highly stylized sequences of the film, Leuchter, standing next to the electric chair in the now defunct Tennessee State Prison, appears unstable, and somewhat sadistic—his figure distorted by the high-contrast black-and-white and by Morris’s exaggerated handheld camera movements. As we hear in voice-over Leuchter calmly describing the horrific effects on the human body of botched executions, ambiguities about the character’s personality and motives start to appear.
These discrepancies are further materialized throughout the movie as Morris puts emphasis on devices that mediate or reflect/deflect reality. In the first shot of the film, as the audience enters Fred’s subjectivity and perspective on the world, his eyes appear in the rear-view mirror of the car he is driving—his vision already mediated by the glasses he has on. Similar sequences are used throughout the movie, none more striking than the one in Auschwitz, where we see Leuchter’s reflection looking into a pool of water at the base of Crematorium 2, his face getting distorted as a single water droplet falls on the surface. In a chilling editing of sound and image, a voice-over tells the audience that Leuchter is standing in the room where the largest number of people had died—a stark contrast compared to the description of the room made by Leuchter minutes prior, as “kind of spooky.”
Mistakenly overestimating his own scientific knowledge and technical abilities, Leuchter is clearly out of place in this environment he does not comprehend. Interestingly enough, Leuchter had professed some of the limits of his competencies in the beginning of the film, arguing that “simply because I’m capable of building an electric chair doesn’t mean I’m capable of building a lethal injection machine. They’re two totally different concepts.” Yet, convinced of his expertise and suffering from an illusory superiority, Leuchter arrives in Auschwitz thinking he can subject history to a simple chemistry experiment.
Ultimately, Leuchter is unyielding in his senseless conception of reality, refusing to accept the evidence even as it leads to his demise. In a possible nod to the final scene of The Thin Blue Line, Morris—near the end of Mr. Death—steps in as a surrogate audience member, and asks Leuchter “Have you ever thought that you might be wrong? Or do you think that you could make a mistake?” To which a definitively clueless Leuchter replies “No, I am past that. […] I did everything possible to substantiate and prove the existence of the gas chambers, and I was unable to.” Blinded by his vanity, and unwilling to engage in self-criticism, Leuchter’s ‘evil’ comes from a failure to think—perhaps the greatest evil of them all.