||Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.
1999 - PG-13 - 96 Mins.
|Director: Errol Morris|
|Producer: David Collins, Michael Williams, Dorothy Aufiero|
|Starring: Fred A. Leuchter Jr., Robert Jan Van Pelt, David Irving, Caroline Leuchter, James Roth |
|Review by: James O'Ehley
‘God help us; we're in the hands of engineers,’ the Jeff Goldblum character in “Jurassic Park” exclaimed.
Amen to that. Engineers can be a creepily effective bunch. Outdoing Spock (of “Star Trek”, not the one who wrote all those baby books) when it comes to the task at hand, at times emotional deficiency seem to be a job requirement at times. Engineers just send shivers down the backs of us Humanities types.
(Full disclosure: some of my best friends are engineers. No seriously, they include family, friends and colleagues. I’m practically surrounded by them every working day.)
An extreme example of this would be one Fred A. Leuchter.
Leuchter’s task at hand was to find ways to execute death row prisoners ‘more humanely.’ Of course killing people isn’t a particularly humane thing to do in the first place, but irony is often an attribute found lacking in engineering types. Leuchter himself finds little irony in some of his statements. At one point he declares that death row inmates executed on one of his devices are ‘lucky’ – as ‘lucky’ as a guy about to die can be I suppose.
Interestingly Leuchter was first approached to ‘fix’ an electric chair, and soon he was called in to look at all kinds of execution devices from the fatal injection machines and gas chambers to the gallows. Which method of execution would he himself prefer? The electric chair it seems . . .
By his own admission he wasn’t qualified to work on all these execution methods – being an expert on electricity voltage and the like doesn’t necessarily prepare one for the task of finding the best way to break someone’s neck. This admission becomes important later on too: the lawyers of a holocaust denier approaches Leuchter to help them prove that the holocaust never happened. The gas chambers at Auschwitz they claim were never that. Six million Jews were never killed by the Nazis.
So Leuchter sets off to the former death camps (on his honeymoon! dragging his newly-wed wife along with him!) to take samples of the walls in the chambers used as gas chambers to find any traces of the cyanide used.
The tests finds none and Leuchter also becomes convinced that the holocaust never took place. This is despite the fact that (a) he is no historian and (b) one of the lab technicians who performed the tests admitted that they were deeply flawed. Leuchter should have checked the public records instead, and he would have stumbled across the requisitions for Zyklon B (the gas pellets used by the Nazis and supplied by German industry). Also, Leuchter doesn’t speak a work of German.
Soon he becomes a regular speaker on the neo-Nazi circuit and the report he drafted becomes a favourite with the likes of David Irving (the revisionist ‘historian’ who lost a libel case regarding the whole issue a few years back) and other holocaust deniers.
Arrogance aside, what possibly could have convinced Leuchter of this? This 1999 documentary supplies no answers.
On the surface of it, Leuchter doesn’t appear to an anti-Semite and fascist ideologue. Instead he appears to be a real life version of one of Dilbert’s co-workers: the balding, thick-lensed glasses-wearing nerd.
One suspects though that he grew to like the attention he suddenly got from both the media and the Nazi types who saw his report as scientific proof that six million Jews were never killed during World War II. (Why is it that the people who deny that it never took place are usually the types who would have committed it in the first place?)
Mr Death is an interesting and fascinating documentary. Its approach is more meditative than the average History Channel fare. For starters, there is no voice-over narrator and the story is instead told by the people being featured and interviewed. It is a character study, and a fascinating one at that. Its flawed protagonist and the others we meet may seem morbid and depressing, but a healthy sense of irony also makes Mr Death far funnier than one would expect.
Recommended. The recently released DVD will be worth your time.