Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999)

D: Errol Morris

"Fred is wrong," says director Errol Morris on the production documentary which accompanies the distribution of his latest documentary feature. Fred is Fred A. Leuchter Jr., a self-styled execution equipment designer and maintenance technician from Boston. His rise was his sudden success redesigning execution devices for U.S. prisons, including a re-thinking of both the electric chair and the lethal injection machine. His fall has come about as a result of his involvement with holocaust denier Ernst Zündel, which culminated in a controversial forensic analysis of the gas chambers of Auschwitz in which Leuchter claimed that no executions had taken place there. When making the film about Leuchter's life and ideas, Morris was faced with a dilemma. Fred is a beguiling, almost childlike personality whose huge spectacles, receding hairline, and simple-minded self-assurance make him a most convincing interviewee. As he expounds his theories, one is struck by a sense that he genuinely believes in what he's saying, and that despite accusations of anti-semitism and collaboration with neo-nazi hatemongers, he is someone whose conviction is based on rational rather than emotional or political grounds. Morris admits that early rough cuts of the film shown to colleagues prompted him to include interviews and evidence which refute Leuchter's research purely because the likely result of the film without them would be both to support his claims and arguably open Morris to the same accusations which have ultimately destroyed the professional career of his subject. Hence in a similar way that The Thin Blue Line undercuts and subverts documentary evidentiality, Mr. Death is a paradoxical (if not wholly reflexive) work of non-fiction film.

Morris has always been attracted to unusual people in unusual environments, from Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida through the mainstream success of The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time, the constant has been his ability to capture and represent the uniqueness of his subjects. Using his combination of head-on interview shots and more fanciful cutaway material (from the reconstructions of The Thin Blue Line to the almost abstract imagery of Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control), Morris has a proven ability to both involve the audience and cause them to question the material they are seeing at least on some level. The Thin Blue Line was an investigation built entirely on demonstrating circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimony are never as definitive as they seem when you consider that perspective is relative. Gates of Heaven was an illustration of how irrelevant detail can sometimes be more important than the nominal subject matter of a film. A Brief History of Time showed that science and the scientist are inextricably intertwined to the extent that the most mind-boggling of theories become understandable when seen from a human point of view. Mr. Death and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control have been, by and large, high-budget productions (certainly by comparison with Morris' earlier work), and a degree of self indulgence had crept in which has dulled the filmmaker's edge. Mr. Death features several such sequences, colourful, almost campy sci-fi-type images of Leuchter framed by bolts of electricity in a darkened studio. These images reinforce the impression that Fred is a strange character, but arguably the inevitable head-on close up interviews shot on Morris' own specialised equipment (he uses a special two-camera set up referred to as the 'interrortron' by his wife) say all that is necessary. The inclusion of the refutations is a fairly clumsy (if arguably necessary) way to undercut his subject's argument. It is as if Morris cannot trust his own technique any more, and feels the need to assure his audience that history itself is not in question here, but the person who has challenged it in this case. This is a curious reversal of The Thin Blue Line, and the methodology is considerably cruder. The point is well taken though, and one does feel a sense of cathartic relief from the comfortably goofy personality at its centre when the refutations begin.

Another set of paradoxes come into play upon deeper consideration. By the end of the film, one feels sorry for Fred, who is most certainly wrong, but who seems to have paid a very high price for an error in judgment. Testimony from representatives of Jewish groups that he is an anti-semite and essentially an enemy of humanity seem unnecessarily harsh, and the evidence that his professional activities have come to an end may be as much an explanation for why he now tours the neo-nazi lecture circuit as a witness to alternative history as deliberate evil-mindedness on his part. Here again Morris reasserts himself as a subversive documentarist, for having made us like Fred, then distrust him, he finally hopes we will understand that he is just a human being, fallible, foolish, and misguided much like the rest of us. This humanistic message has always been a feature of the director's work, and there is no reason to assume it is not present here. Fred A. Leuchter Jr. is a unique individual in a unique environment (in this case a self-created one as much of the mind as it is 'reality' per se), and in this he is a typical Morris subject. Errol Morris is one of the most distinctive and important voices in postmodern documentary practice, and though not among his best, Mr. Death remains a significant addition to his catalogue of singular non-fiction films. It will be interesting to see how it is received though, and if, like Alain Resnais Night & Fog, it will be thought of in simplistic, rhetorical terms rather than complex, interrogative ones. Fred is wrong all right, but what, if anything, does that tell us about ourselves?

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.