When Errol Morris' remarkable Mr. Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. was released in 1999, some were concerned that Leuchter's claims of historical revisionism relative to the Holocaust would somehow be given more validity and a larger platform by proxy. Such sentiments - though understandable - were so unapologetically and inherently condescending as to appear aspiring toward the censorious. Morris' concerns in this "documentary" were not merely to offer a platform and refutation of Leuchter's claims. The man himself, his past vocations, and his all-too-human (and scientifically tinged) hubris were so thematically rich that the film ultimately became an exploration of equally vast, troubling, and timeless human traits, no less worthwhile than the ostensible subjects of capital punishment and historical revisionism. Although it is perhaps more comforting not to acknowledge, Morris reminds us that behind every institution and its methodologies are human beings. In Mr. Death – and as per his usual – Morris displays his uncanny, unique ability to entertain the senses and engage the intellect while operating on multiple levels.
Born in Massachusetts, Leuchter's father was a Corrections Department employee, and he was introduced to the prison environment at an early age. In adulthood, he began analyzing execution equipment throughout the United States and claims to have been appalled at the instruments' "deplorable" condition and tendency to malfunction (Leuchter states that although he is a proponent of capital punishment, he is not one of "human torture"). After recommending modifications to an electric chair that would render the method of execution more "humane," other states began approaching him for modifications to other types of execution equipment. (This is one of the more eye opening aspects of the film – as Leuchter comments, the fact that he understood the electric chair did not suggest any special understanding of lethal injection machines, gallows, or even gas chambers. This was, apparently, of no great concern to the various states' representatives.) And so his vocation – his "rise" – was born.
After becoming a de facto "expert," Leuchter was petitioned by the defense team of Ernst Zündel, a Holocaust revisionist on trial in Canada. Zündel, the author of "Did Six Million Really Die?" was prosecuted under a little used statute that rendered the publication of statements that "he knew were false" that could cause "racial intolerance" illegal. As Zündel notes, Leuchter was the only witness he could find since the United States was the only country in the world still using the gas chamber to end human life. After agreeing to assist, Leuchter traveled to Poland to obtain samples from the walls of the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. These samples would be tested for cyanide residue and thereby speak to the veracity (or purported lack thereof) of once functioning gas chambers. And so begins the titular "fall."
Published by British revisionist David Irving (also interviewed here), the Leuchter Report stated definitively that no cyanide residue was found in the samples. The Canadian magistrate refused to enter the report into evidence, although he did allow its use as an informational reference. Zündel was found guilty, and Leuchter, upon returning to the United States, found that he had essentially become a pariah. All governmental contracts immediately ceased, he was prosecuted for practicing engineering without a license, and was even investigated for attempting to sell half of a lethal injection device that the state of Delaware was no longer interested in obtaining from Leuchter. He continued extolling the virtues of his "research" and "findings" at revisionist conferences throughout Europe (and elsewhere) for the impressively named Institute for Historical Review. Moreover, he refused to (apparently) even reconsider his methodology in the face of what can only be described as damning refutations (the lab chemist who performed the tests – and was compelled to testify at the Canadian trial – unequivocally stated that the tests had "no meaning"). Undeterred, Leuchter maintained his position at the cost of his professional reputation, livelihood, and marriage.
Charting both this idiosyncratic individual and his unique career trajectory, Morris could have easily navigated toward the comical or polemic. Wisely, he lets Leuchter speak at great, uninterrupted lengths – like all humans, his personality is flawed and intriguing, and Morris refuses to shade him in easy tones. When discussing the horrific aspects of electrocutions gone wrong, and explaining the reasoning behind his modifications, Leuchter appears sensitive and sympathetic toward the notion of all humans having an inherent right to dignity. When he travels to the camps, however, his insensitivity is jaw-dropping. Afraid of being caught chiseling away, he seems to only conceptualize the camps as "national" monuments (they are something much, much greater than that); he voices a great displeasure with the soup he received at the Auschwitz Hotel; and, lastly, he moves around the camp, measuring the buildings, chipping away at the walls, seemingly oblivious to the greater implications - and psychological distancing - of his behavior. (When historian Robert Jan van Pelt remarks that it took him years to prepare to go to the camps, it is easily understandable.)
Gauging whether or not Leuchter is guilty of, as various commentators posit, being a "simpleton," having made a "deal with devil," or choosing not to consider "the evidence of his own foolishness," is quite difficult given Morris' treatment. If nothing else, his pragmatism and failure to understand human malfeasance (he notes that he cannot understand why the Nazis would actively destroy their slave labor, nor why they did not employ a more efficient method of annihilation) are all too apparent.
Two of the more striking aspects also to be found in this remarkable film: the number 500,000 is mentioned exactly twice: once to describe the number of people exterminated in "Crematorium B" at Auschwitz by van Pelt, and again to denote the amount of Leuchter Report(s) circulating in Germany alone, according to Zündel. There is also a statement by Zündel concerning his attempts to continue denying the Holocaust – he sees his endeavor as an attempt to "detoxify a poisoned planet."
That statement is particularly telling.
For twenty-five years, Errol Morris has been responsible for some of the most surprising and entertaining "documentaries" to be found anywhere. I have added the quotation marks because the films he makes are not really documentaries, and I am not especially fond of the term - and what it purports to convey - in the first place. Purists have criticized Morris' penchant for reenactment and the aesthetically rendered (and dramatically composed) segments he usually includes. They have also interpreted such as a lack of formal and informational "objectivity" toward his subjects. I think that mode of critique is ultimately futile and not especially insightful. Such controversies began with pioneer Robert Flaherty's various stagings and have continued up to and through gadfly Michael Moore's career; like those two lightning rods of controversy, Morris' films often attempt to work out larger, highly personal concerns while using what has become an established, immediately recognizable template. Only the most cursory analysis could result in cries of disingenuousness; even then, I would argue "so what?" since any viewer capable of analytical thought will more than likely bring some salt to the party anyway. As long as there are individuals choosing material, soundtracks, framing choices, and the editing process, there will always be – admittedly to varying degrees – manipulation in any (and every) documentary film.
Most of Morris' works, I would argue, are more aptly described as filmed essays. Drawn to subjects ranging from gross injustices (the Thin Blue Line), pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven, criminally underseen), and oddball choices in human endeavor (Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control), Morris is such a skilled storyteller that even the most seemingly inane subjects are given wonderfully complex treatments. Valuably, his films also tend to pose more questions than they attempt to answer.
For any adventurous, intelligent viewer, this is a welcome reward in and of itself.
Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Mr. Death is a decidedly mixed bag in terms of video quality. The interview segments shot by Morris generally appear quite good, and his stylish, colorful interludes are also well rendered. The archival materials, home movies, and raw footage from the camps are of low quality, but that is certainly no fault of the filmmakers. Overall, Mr. Death appears more than adequate and less then spectacular. This, given the tenor of the film itself, is really of minor concern.
Audio: A DD 2.0 mix has been utilized for Mr. Death and it is very well rendered. Morris uses quite a bit of background music (effectively composed by Caleb Sampson) to comment and set moods (ranging from buoyancy to foreboding), and it is nicely balanced into the mix. Dialogue is likewise balanced, and is never at all difficult to hear. No aural fireworks to be found here, but again, this is of minor concern.
Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.
Extras: Regrettably, no supplemental materials are included with this release.
Final Thoughts: To those not familiar with the films of Errol Morris, Mr. Death is as good an introduction to his particular brand of documentary filmmaking as any of his other works. Challenging, perversely entertaining, and deeply disquieting on multiple levels, Mr. Death is an extraordinary portrait of a seemingly ordinary human. It is also much, much more than that. As such, it is highly recommended.