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Errol Morris's Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

By Drew Morton | Film | July 18, 2011 |

By Drew Morton | Film | July 18, 2011 |

Errol Morris’s documentaries have always appealed to me via his legitimate interest in the carnivalesque. He relishes in exposing the social paradoxes of American culture and yet his works often transcend satire and lampoon journalism into thought provoking and elusive philosophical explorations. His debut film, Gates of Heaven (1978), explores a pet cemetery and the people who both envisioned it and buried their pets there. Yet, the film does more than investigate the bizarre concept of a pet cemetery and the wounded souls who entomb their pets there. Morris pushes the investigation through the looking glass to look at the concepts of death and the afterlife, as these deeply personal philosophies are the driving force behind both the conceptualization and utilization of the cemetery.

Morris’s Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999) follows a similar progression. He begins by introducing us to Fred A. Leuchter Jr., a bespectacled and socially awkward man. He begins the film by telling us about his family, growing up to be the son of a corrections officer and witnessing an electric chair execution. The event left a profound impact on Leuchter and pushed him into a rather morbid hobby that eventually became a career: execution consultant. Leuchter is brought in by one prison, based on his interests, to re-design their electrical chair to be both more efficient and, by extension, more humane. He is not against the death penalty but he believes in allowing the criminal subject to keep his or her dignity throughout the process. Now, keep in mind that he has no real qualifications for this career, just an interest in instruments of death and that because of the controversy of capital punishment, Leuchter is one of the few “experts” willing to work on these problems. Yet, despite his qualifications, Leuchter’s redesign is successful and word spreads of his odd usefulness to the American prison systems. He is brought in by other prisons to consult on other devices ranging from lethal injection machines (one design he pioneered has become widely utilized), gallows and finally a gas chamber.

Leuchter speaks at length about how inefficient the gas chamber is and how much can go wrong in the process. Look at how long it takes! What if there is a crack in the wall? Etc., etc. Behold, the rise of Leuchter. Now, of course, comes the fall. Leuchter’s work with gas chambers gains him the attention of Ernst Zündel, a denier of the Holocaust on trial for publishing slanderous materials. Zündel’s defense approaches Leuchter to investigate Auschwitz to see if gas chambers had actually been operated there. Leuchter goes over, personally takes rock samples from the ghastly chambers (without notifying any authorities), and sends them back to the United States for testing. When the tests come back negative, Leuchter becomes a hero of neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers everywhere. The man who struggled to be accepted because of his perverse interests have found acceptance and, because it is a rare event for Leuchter, he whole-heartedly accepts it.

However, what Morris gives us is not just a goofy, sad account of a socially shunned, awkward man but an indictment of our society at large. Essentially, we helped push Leuchter to where he eventually went. We dubbed him an “expert” despite his training because we was the only person willing to do some dirty work. After giving him validity time and time again, he thought he was capable of feats that had little correlation to his interest in capital punishment. How is collecting rock samples for testing anywhere close to engineering a better electric chair? When we find out his methods were faulty and that his conclusions were erroneous (it doesn’t help Leuchter that he based his conclusions off of only rock samples and did not bother to even go into the Auschwitz Archives to read German written memoranda about the existence of such facilities!), Morris allows us to find him despicable, a tragic, misguided, human being that we helped off the path of rational thinking. We were willing to accept his work when it was being used to (hopefully) punish the guilty and when that same morbid enthusiasm attempted to re-write the narrative of one of the darkest moments in history, we tore him down.

Now, I would never argue that Leuchter is correct or that he didn’t deserve the public lashing he received. However, it would be unfair to deny our role (and I say this as a culture as a whole, including the state institutions that brought Leuchter on board) in both his rise and fall. In a grim sense, Mr. Death is essentially the same narrative that “A&E Biography” tells time and time again: fame ruins nearly everyone and while the majority of the failure is the product of that subject, we are the ones who placed them upon a pedestal in the first place. Morris will not allow us, like Leuchter’s view of the Holocaust, to deny that truth and it is to his credit as a documentarian and a writer of visual essays on American culture that he does not.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.