Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

1999, Movie, PG-13, 90 mins


A man, a plan, an electric chair: Fred Leuchter is a perplexing puzzle of a person. The gnomish, self-taught engineer, son of a prison guard, stumbled onto a career building and servicing execution devices. He's pro capitol punishment, he declares, but not pro-death by torture; his desire to build a better electric chair was always humanitarian in origin. Leuchter is the first to marvel that because he'd built an electric chair, prison officials thought he could build a gallows, a lethal injection machine or a gas chamber; he sees the expertise isn't the same but gave it a shot anyway, apparently well. And it was the gas chamber that led to Leuchter's second, more macabre (hard though that may be to imagine) claim to fame. Contacted in 1988 by Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, on trial in Canada for "publishing false history" with intent to incite racial hatred, Leuchter went to Poland to take samples from the concentration camps at Birkenau and Auschwitz and test them for residual cyanide gas. No gas would mean no gas chambers and no death camps, and Zundel wouldn't be guilty of falsifying history. Leuchter did indeed come home convinced that Auschwitz and Birkenau were merely forced-labor camps; his report on the matter was embraced by white supremicists, neo-Nazis and revisionist historians around the world and, apparently to his surprise, left Leuchter universally reviled outside their ranks. Errol Morris' characteristically distanced documentary is empathetic without being especially sympathetic. Leuchter, who's described by defenders and detractors alike as a "fool" and a "simpleton," was initially meant to be one of the off-beat dreamers profiled in FAST, CHEAP AND OUT OF CONTROL. But the enormity of his self-delusion more than merits the longer treatment he receives here. "Banality of evil" may be a cliché, but it's all too apt. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
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