Combustible Celluloid
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With: Fred A. Leuchter Jr., Robert Jan Van Pelt, David Irving, James Roth, Shelly Shapiro, Suzanne Tabasky, Ernst Zundel
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Errol Morris
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements
Running Time: 91
Date: 09/16/1999

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

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Errol Morris has carved his niche with films about freaks and losers: the pet cemetery owners in Gates of Heaven (1978), the innocent man on death row in The Thin Blue Line (1988), palsied scientist Steven Hawking in A Brief History of Time (1992), and four strange men trying to tame nature in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997). But Fred Leuchter is his strangest subject by far, which renders Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter Jr. Morris' most potent film, his masterpiece. The year 2000 will be hard-pressed to come up with a better film than this. It's already a candidate for my list of the best films of the year.

Fred Leuchter starts out as any Morris character does. He's an oddball who manufactures execution equipment. His father worked at a prison and Leuchter was appalled at the condition the electric chair was in. So he designed a more humane one. From there, he naturally graduated to designing lethal injection machines and gas chambers. When asked how he sleeps at night, Leuchter replies, "I sleep very well." He knows that executed prisoners will die instantaneously and not be tortured. Leuchter keeps getting stranger, admitting in his Boston accent that he drinks "fawty" cups of coffee a day.

Many will not have the advantage of seeing Mr. Death and not knowing about its terrifying second half. For the first half of the film, I was giggling and gasping at the astonishing Mr. Leuchter. "Is this guy for real?" I asked myself.

Then the film unleashes its real power.

Leuchter was hired by a neo-Nazi to travel to Auschwitz to prove that there was no Holocaust. Leuchter saw himself as a hero; the only one who could save this poor guy who was arrested for circulating literature explaining why the Holocaust was a fraud. We see Leuchter (thanks to his own home video tapes) stumbling around Auschwitz, illegally scraping rock samples from the walls, hoping to find traces of cyanide. The operation is ludicrous, but Leuchter believes firmly in his findings. (Even more astonishing is that he was married shortly before the excursion and took his new wife along--as a honeymoon.)

Leuchter spends the film defending his position. Apparently, even after his life has been ruined, his business destroyed, and he has had to go into hiding, he still believes he did the right thing. Morris correctly provides us proof that Leuchter's findings were wrong, including an interview with the lab technician who analyzed Leuchter's samples. And without this proof, Mr. Death could easily have become a neo-Nazi propaganda film.

Morris has been working on making this film for two decades now and it reaches a higher plateau than anything he has attempted previously. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control left us feeling kind of sorry for those four men who were apparently wasting their lives trying to tame nature. It also left us with a feeling of smallness in the universe. Mr. Death leaves us realizing that questioning our own actions is not enough. You have to know to ask the right kind of questions. Leuchter, even at the end of the film, still believes that he is a kind of hero. That kind of delusion is terrifying. But we know that it's very real.

Visually, Morris brings things to the documentary format that leaves 99% of other documentaries looking decades behind the times. He photographs Leuchter drinking coffee, with a huge coffee cup in the foreground. But the most striking image is Leuchter standing behind the bars of a cage with thin blue bolts of electricity bursting everywhere. It's a powerful image that conjures many thoughts about strength and truth, life and death.

I said before that Errol Morris is a great documentary filmmaker. Scratch that. He's a great filmmaker, period. He's among the Pantheon of great directors working today, and Mr. Death is his best film. I can't give a higher recommendation than that.

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