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

(Errol Morris, USA, 1999)


The publicity for this latest documentary by Errol Morris seems reticent or squeamish about stating directly what it is primarily about. So let me be clear: Mr Death is the most important film about the phenomenon of Holocaust denial that I have yet encountered, whether in fiction or non-fiction form. On every level, it is a great achievement.

To be sure, Morris cagily takes his time before unveiling the true terrain of his project. For the first half hour, Mr Death seems to be the portrait of a man who specialises in preparing execution systems for prisons – a dark postscript, perhaps, to the eccentrics and inventors profiled in Morris' previous film, the brilliant Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997).

As we first get to know him, Fred Leuchter is an odd, intriguing character – a disconcerting mixture of alienated rationality (offering calm disquisitions on the effects of ropes, electric currents and gas on human bodies) and professional compassion (his main aim, as he repeatedly states, is to provide a humane death). Both in appearance and behaviour, he matches the general stereotype of a nerd – a correspondence which Morris clearly enjoys, but also allows us to move beyond.

Morris' method as a documentarian is to gradually fit together the pieces of a person's life, leaving the film's viewpoint implicit. So he keeps in reserve a touching testimony about his subject's marriage – which follows on from facts about the astounding amount of coffee and cigarettes he consumes – and also a weird tale about the 'spirit photography' that Leuchter believes may be contained in snaps of an electric chair he once dismantled. Only much later in the film will we think again about these casual revelations.

Suddenly, the relaxed, occasionally creepy portrait is over, and a story from the nightly television news commands our attention: the trial of Ernst Zundel, fanatical neo-Nazi and purveyor of Holocaust denial propaganda. Since Leuchter is an expert in execution by gas, he is called upon by Zundel's defence team to test the remains of the death chambers at Auschwitz. His report concludes that the history of the site is a myth, a hoax. And, as a result of declaring and publishing this considered opinion, his life falls apart.

The centre of Mr Death is the private video footage of Leuchter at Auschwitz, furtively and illegally chipping away at wall and rock samples, while his wife waits outside in the car. Morris expands these horrific images through his own, highly stylised brand of 'dramatic recreation'. And he brings in another voice to comment upon them: Holocaust historian Robert Jan Van Pelt.

Van Pelt's critique is simple but devastating. Not only did Leuchter, in his purely technical approach, lack sufficient respect for the site and its human meaning; he was also unable to "read the traces" of a partly lost, scattered and rearranged past. The irony is unspoken but shattering: Leuchter sees the spirit of a criminal in a photograph, but cannot sense anything of the tragedy of Auschwitz, where he stamps, pokes and prods like an eager boy scout.

Since his breakthrough film, The Thin Blue Line (1988), Morris has never hesitated to use the resources of fiction cinema to enhance his material. Here, the elaborate musical score by Caleb Simpson and the richly textured cinematography by Peter Donohue and Robert Richardson structure and shape the meanings and moods of the piece. Where Morris' style sometimes falls into mere, fiddly illustration or embroidery (as in A Brief History of Time, 1992), here it goes right to the heart of the problems of historical seeing, sensing and understanding.

Morris is smart enough to let us contemplate every side of the complex story of Leuchter without ever falling into a reprehensible relativism or amorality that mirrors his subject's. We can admire Leuchter as a self-made man, but also wonder about his lack of credentials. We can be touched by the small details of his personal, intimate life, but also speculate on why even this comes apart so spectacularly.

Morris leads us to grasp the pathos or tragedy of this man – but does not allow such sentiment to obfuscate the real issues. In a key passage, the film boldly juxtaposes the claim that Leuchter is an anti-Semite with his own statement that he isn't – and, for a moment, we are willing to sympathise with him as an unfortunate victim of an ideological witch hunt. But only for a moment.

Mr Death's most powerful gesture comes when Morris uncharacteristically breaks his own silence behind the camera, his voice intervening to ask Leuchter: "Have you ever thought that you might be wrong?" The response – "No, I'm past that" – speaks volumes about the inflexibility of a mind led astray. And when Leuchter starts waxing about the defence of "freedom of speech", we realise how hollow and fundamentally unethical this catch-cry can become in our time.

© Adrian Martin August 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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