Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

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Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
Mrdeath.JPG
Theatrical poster
Directed by Errol Morris
Produced by Dorothy Aufiero
David Collins
Errol Morris
Michael Williams
Music by Caleb Sampson
Cinematography Peter Donahue
Edited by Karen Schmeer
Distributed by Lions Gate Films
Release date
Running time
91 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $507,941[1] (US and Canada)

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is a 1999 documentary film by Errol Morris about execution technician Fred A. Leuchter.[2][3]

Synopsis[edit]

Using film made at American prisons, Leuchter talked about his upbringing where his father was a corrections officer. Through his family associations, young Leuchter claimed he was able to witness an execution performed in an electric chair. Leuchter's impression of the event was that the electric chairs used by American prisons were unsafe and often ineffective. The event led him to design modifications to the device that were adopted by many American states.

Leuchter claimed he was invited to other American prisons to inspect and design modifications to their electric chairs. He possessed no relevant formal training or education, and claims that he was told that those who did possess such qualifications would not provide advice due to their opinions on the death penalty, fear of reprisals or that they were squeamish about the subject.

Leuchter's career continued with other state prisons seeking his advice on execution facilities other than electrocution, such as gas chambers, hanging and lethal injection. Though initially professing his ignorance of other methods of execution, the authorities seeking his advice reminded him that others with more qualifications refused to help. Leuchter claimed to have taught himself on these other methods of execution and provided advice that was used by the authorities to improve safety and efficiency.

His fall began when Leuchter claimed to have been sought as a witness for the defence of Ernst Zündel on trial in Canada for publishing and sending material denying the Holocaust overseas. Leuchter was asked by the defence to travel to Poland to visit Auschwitz to investigate whether there had been operating gas chambers for executions at the camp.

At his first examination Leuchter felt that using poison gas in a building with the internal and external design of the buildings currently on display in the site would have caused the death of everyone in the area outside the buildings as well as inside. The film shows videotape footage taken in Poland of Leuchter taking samples of bricks in the buildings to take back to the United States forensic science crime labs to determine whether there was evidence of poison gas in the material. As per the usual procedure the samples were not identified as to where they came from. Leuchter stated the laboratories reported that there was not any trace of any poison gas at any time.

After these conclusions were disproven and negative publicity ensued, Leuchter lost his positions as consultant to American prisons.

Background[edit]

When Morris originally screened an early version of the film for a Harvard University film class, he found that the students reacted by either believing Leuchter's side of the story or by condemning the film as a piece of Holocaust denial. Morris had no such intention, however, as Morris had considered it obvious that Leuchter was wrong, and that the main idea of the film was intended to be the exploration of Leuchter as a being almost completely lacking in self-knowledge:

The Holocaust has been used in movies as a way of increasing drama in a sense that the triumph of the human spirit never looked so triumphant against the horrors. This movie attempts to do something very different. It's to try to enter the mindset of denial. You are asked to reflect on the whole idea of denial in general, not as some postwar phenomenon but as something that was inherent in the enterprise itself. You would think it would be the easiest thing in the world to identify this behavior as wrong, horrific, depraved. Those people did these things. To me, the question is how. With Mr. Death, it's about finding out why Fred Leuchter holds these views.[4]

Thus, the "fall" of Leuchter's life is portrayed not as a result of any particular ill feelings toward the Jewish people or passionate support for revisionist history, but rather as an absurd man bumbling into making statements generally considered to be offensive and contrary to known facts. Errol Morris re-edited the film to include additional interviews with people who condemn Leuchter with varying intensity. Morris said this last part should have been unnecessary, since, to him, Leuchter was so obviously misguided in much of what he says in the film.[4]

In the course of the film Leuchter states that he could not believe in the gas chambers because he could not himself conceive of their mechanics, although he makes it evident that he knows very little of the history in which these arose. He suggests a series of options (hanging, shooting, and explosives), most of which the Nazis had attempted (shootings and explosives) before determining that direct, ongoing, and extensive SS involvement would not be sufficient to achieve the genocidal objectives they set for themselves after earlier forays into mass murder, such as Einsatzgruppen and Babi Yar. Leuchter similarly appears unaware of the T-4 Euthanasia Program and the history or science behind small-scale gassings directed by Hitler's Reich Chancellery and then the SS.

Morris examines but does not pursue either Leuchter's opposition to gas as a means of execution, or his imputed lack of practical experience with it. Leuchter's concern with the safety of gassing methods appears to be a cause of his disbelief in its viability as he believed the venting process would pose a serious threat to the operators. His critics reply:

Nonsense; it is all a question of concentration. Once the gas is released into the atmosphere, its concentration decreases and it is no longer dangerous. Also, HCN dissipates quickly. The execution gas chambers in US prisons are also ventilated directly into the atmosphere. Furthermore, if this argument would hold for the extermination chambers, it would hold for the delousing chambers as well, and one would have to conclude that no delousing chambers existed either.[5]

Robert Jan van Pelt, who appears in Mr. Death to specify some of Leuchter's scholarly failures (e.g. not consulting the large documentation archive available at Auschwitz), served as an expert witness against David Irving in his libel trial, relating to the court the strength of the physical and documentary evidence supporting the use of that camp for gassing. That testimony was printed as The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial (ISBN 0-253-34016-0).Van Pelt is also the co-author, with Deborah Dwork, of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (New York: Norton, 1990).

Morris was not fond of the title and had wanted to name the film "Honeymoon in Auschwitz," which Leuchter had, in fact, done.[6]

Critical reception[edit]

On the television series At the Movies, film critic Roger Ebert said the film was great, strange and provocative, and his co-host Lisa Schwarzbaum called it "amazing."[7] The Detroit News wrote that the movie "unmasks the friendly face of evil."[8]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Mr. Death (1999)". Box Office Mojo. Amazon.com. Retrieved October 9, 2011. 
  2. ^ "Feelings erupt at trial over a license". The Washington Times. December 17, 1990. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  3. ^ "Dr. Death and His Wonderful Machine". The New York Times. October 18, 1990. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 
  4. ^ a b "Errol Morris interview by Ron Rosenbaum". The Museum of Modern Art. Fall 1999. Retrieved 2007-03-04. 
  5. ^ Holocaust FAQ: The "Leuchter Report" (The Nizkor Project)
  6. ^ Livia Bloom (ed.), Errol Morris Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2010.
  7. ^ Ebert, Roger (2000). "Feelings erupt at trial over a license". At the Movies. Retrieved 2008-03-11. [permanent dead link]
  8. ^ "'Mr. Death' unmasks the friendly face of evil". Detroit News. February 25, 2000. Retrieved 2008-03-11. 

External links[edit]