Film Review: Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (dir by Errol Morris)


This 1999 documentary provides a disturbing portrait of an absolute moron.

Of course, when we first see and hear Fred Leuchter, Jr., he doesn’t seem like a moron.  He definitely comes across as being a bit eccentric and maybe just a little bit off but, at first sight, he’s actually kind of likable.  As he explains it, he grew up in the United States prison system.  His father worked in prison administration and one of Fred’s earliest memories was sitting in an electric chair.  Fred grew up to be an engineer and, concerned that America’s execution methods were cruel and potentially dangerous to even those who weren’t being executed, he decided to dedicate his life to redesigning electric chairs and gas chambers.  He even built his own lethal injection machine, all designed to make sure that the condemned felt as little pain as possible while dying.  As Fred explains it, he supports capital punishment but “I don’t support torture.”

Fred Leuchter soon came to be recognized as one of America’s leading experts on execution devices.  As he himself admits, that’s largely because he was American’s only expert on the way that people are legally executed.  Whereas most people deliberately went out of their way not to learn the specifics of what happens when someone is put to death, Fred made it his life’s purpose.  After redesigning an electric chair in Tennessee, Fred was soon being summoned to other states so that he could refurbish and, in many cases, redesign their execution machinery.  For the first 30 minutes of the documentary, Fred explains what it’s like to be an expert on executions and it’s hard not to like this nerdy, self-described “humanitarian.”  If anything, you spend the first part of this documentary considering the oddness of finding a humane way to execute the condemned.  America prides itself on both it’s rejection of cruel and unusual punishment and it’s willingness to put criminals to death.  It’s an odd combination and, briefly, Leuchter seems like the embodiment of those two contrasting positions.

This changes during the documentary’s second half.  That’s when we learn how, in 1988, Leuchter was hired by a German anti-Semite named Ernst Zundel.  Zundel was being tried in Canada, charged with publishing and shipping works of Holocaust denial.  For a fee of $30,000, Leuchter spent his honeymoon in Poland, went to Auschwitz, and personally “inspected” the gas chambers.  Because Leuchter brought a camera crew with him, his every action was recorded.

We watch as Leuchter and his assistants sneak into the gas chamber and proceed to clumsily start chipping away at the walls.  We listen as Leuchter goes on and on about how he doesn’t feel that the gas chamber was actually a gas chamber because it just seems too impractical to him.  If they wanted to executed a large group of people at once, why didn’t the Nazis use the gallows? Leuchter wonders.  (They did.)  Why didn’t the Nazis use firing squads?  Leuchter asks.  (They did.)  Even before Leuchter returns to America, he’s made it clear that his mind is made up.  He can’t understand why the Nazis would have done what they did and therefore, in his mind, that means they didn’t do it.  After all, Leuchter’s an expert.  He’s Mr. Death.

He’s also a moron and, by the time he starts cheerfully talking about all the effort that went into smuggling the wall chips out of Germany, whatever likability he once had has vanished.  Watching this film, I found myself wishing for a time machine so that I could go back in the past and throw something at him.  You just want him to shut up for a minute and realize that what he’s saying makes no sense.  Not that it would make any difference, of course.  Leuchter is too proud of himself for having discovered “the truth” to actually consider that he could be wrong.

When Leuchter’s samples are tested for trace amounts of poison gas, they come back negative.  Leuchter announces that this means that the Holocaust never happened and he writes up the infamous Leuchter Report, which is still regularly cited as evidence by Neo-Nazi groups and anti-Semitic historians like David Irving.  However, as Dutch historian Robert Jan van Pelt explains (and, as we’ve already seen in the video that Leuchter himself shot at Auschwitz), Leuchter not only did not take a big enough sample but he was so clumsy in the way that he transported it that he diluted the sample as well.  Even beyond all that, it would be very unusual for cyanide residue to still present after forty years of everyday wear and tear.

None of this matters, of course, to Fred Leuchter.  With the publication of the Leuchter Report, he becomes a fixture on the Holocaust denial circuit.  (We see an edition of the Leuchter Report that was published and distributed by the Aryan Nations.)  Suddenly, Leuchter has fans.  In his own sad and pathetic way, he’s become a celebrity and we see him beaming as he stands on the stage of a Neo-Nazi conference.  Meanwhile, his wife leaves him.  And prisons stop using him as a consultant, especially after they discover that he was never actually licensed to practice engineering.  Financially bereft, Leuchter even resorts to trying to sell one of his beloved “execution devices,” putting an ad in the classifieds.  (Needless to say, things don’t go well.)  Looking over the ruins of his life, who does Leuchter blame for his troubles?  “Jewish groups,” he says before then going on to assure us that some of his best friends were and are Jewish.  Was Leuchter always an anti-Semite or did he become one because he needed someone to blame for his own self-destruction?  That’s a question that the viewer will have to answer for themselves.

Mr. Death is a disturbing portrait of a rather sad and pathetic figure, a man who fell victim to his own arrogance and hubris and who, as opposed to seeking redemption, instead allied himself with the only people ignorant and hateful enough to still embrace him.  As is his style, documentarian Errol Morris interviews Leuchter’s critics but refrains from personally arguing with Leuchter, instead basically giving the self-described execution expert just enough rope to hang himself.  (Morris does, at one point, ask Leuchter if he’s ever considered that he might be wrong.  Not surprisingly, Leuchter claims that he has not and seems to be confused by the question.)  In the end, it’s impossible to feel sorry for Leuchter.  The nerdy humanitarian who opposed torture had been replaced by a self-pitying Holocaust denier.  By the end of the film, Fred A Leuchter, Jr. and his report have become a reminder of the damage that can be done by one dangerously ignorant man.

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