Mr Death Documentary Review Essay

Article first published on Static Mass Emporium

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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 towhich 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.

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Posted in:ReviewsTagged:Capital punishment, Electric chair, Ernst Zündel, Errol Morris, Fred Leuchter, Gas chamber, Holocaust denial, reviewPermalinkLeave a comment

Errol Morris's Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

By Drew Morton | Film | July 18, 2011 | Comments ()

By Drew Morton | Film | July 18, 2011 |

Errol Morris's documentaries have always appealed to me via his legitimate interest in the carnivalesque. He relishes in exposing the social paradoxes of American culture and yet his works often transcend satire and lampoon journalism into thought provoking and elusive philosophical explorations. His debut film, Gates of Heaven (1978), explores a pet cemetery and the people who both envisioned it and buried their pets there. Yet, the film does more than investigate the bizarre concept of a pet cemetery and the wounded souls who entomb their pets there. Morris pushes the investigation through the looking glass to look at the concepts of death and the afterlife, as these deeply personal philosophies are the driving force behind both the conceptualization and utilization of the cemetery.

Morris's Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999) follows a similar progression. He begins by introducing us to Fred A. Leuchter Jr., a bespectacled and socially awkward man. He begins the film by telling us about his family, growing up to be the son of a corrections officer and witnessing an electric chair execution. The event left a profound impact on Leuchter and pushed him into a rather morbid hobby that eventually became a career: execution consultant. Leuchter is brought in by one prison, based on his interests, to re-design their electrical chair to be both more efficient and, by extension, more humane. He is not against the death penalty but he believes in allowing the criminal subject to keep his or her dignity throughout the process. Now, keep in mind that he has no real qualifications for this career, just an interest in instruments of death and that because of the controversy of capital punishment, Leuchter is one of the few "experts" willing to work on these problems. Yet, despite his qualifications, Leuchter's redesign is successful and word spreads of his odd usefulness to the American prison systems. He is brought in by other prisons to consult on other devices ranging from lethal injection machines (one design he pioneered has become widely utilized), gallows and finally a gas chamber.

Leuchter speaks at length about how inefficient the gas chamber is and how much can go wrong in the process. Look at how long it takes! What if there is a crack in the wall? Etc., etc. Behold, the rise of Leuchter. Now, of course, comes the fall. Leuchter's work with gas chambers gains him the attention of Ernst Zündel, a denier of the Holocaust on trial for publishing slanderous materials. Zündel's defense approaches Leuchter to investigate Auschwitz to see if gas chambers had actually been operated there. Leuchter goes over, personally takes rock samples from the ghastly chambers (without notifying any authorities), and sends them back to the United States for testing. When the tests come back negative, Leuchter becomes a hero of neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers everywhere. The man who struggled to be accepted because of his perverse interests have found acceptance and, because it is a rare event for Leuchter, he whole-heartedly accepts it.

However, what Morris gives us is not just a goofy, sad account of a socially shunned, awkward man but an indictment of our society at large. Essentially, we helped push Leuchter to where he eventually went. We dubbed him an "expert" despite his training because we was the only person willing to do some dirty work. After giving him validity time and time again, he thought he was capable of feats that had little correlation to his interest in capital punishment. How is collecting rock samples for testing anywhere close to engineering a better electric chair? When we find out his methods were faulty and that his conclusions were erroneous (it doesn't help Leuchter that he based his conclusions off of only rock samples and did not bother to even go into the Auschwitz Archives to read German written memoranda about the existence of such facilities!), Morris allows us to find him despicable, a tragic, misguided, human being that we helped off the path of rational thinking. We were willing to accept his work when it was being used to (hopefully) punish the guilty and when that same morbid enthusiasm attempted to re-write the narrative of one of the darkest moments in history, we tore him down.

Now, I would never argue that Leuchter is correct or that he didn't deserve the public lashing he received. However, it would be unfair to deny our role (and I say this as a culture as a whole, including the state institutions that brought Leuchter on board) in both his rise and fall. In a grim sense, Mr. Death is essentially the same narrative that "A&E Biography" tells time and time again: fame ruins nearly everyone and while the majority of the failure is the product of that subject, we are the ones who placed them upon a pedestal in the first place. Morris will not allow us, like Leuchter's view of the Holocaust, to deny that truth and it is to his credit as a documentarian and a writer of visual essays on American culture that he does not.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.


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