What happens when a simple man asks simple questions that require complex answers that he cannot understand? This is what Errol Morris explores in his 1999 documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
During his childhood, Leuchter’s father worked in the Massachusetts correctional system as a transportation supervisor. Leuchter, Jr. would often go to work with his father and grew up seeing the humanity of the prisoners his father worked with and not just their criminality. He learned illegal skills from them like lock-picking and safe-cracking as well as other things he said helped him in life. In the opening scenes of the documentary, Leuchter shares home movies taken of him and his father working on prison grounds.
As an adult, Leuchter became concerned with the conditions of the execution equipment in America’s prisons, specifically their electric chairs. In the film he discusses some of the horrific accidents that have occurred when prisoner’s executions have been botched and resulted in torturous death instead of a quick and efficient one. Leuchter tells tales of a Florida inmate whose execution caused his head to catch on fire and another in New York where the electric chair split in half. The inmate fell to the floor where he cried and writhed in pain for a half an hour before the prison carpenters repaired the chair and ran wires to an outside transformer so they could electrocute the inmate a second time. With tales like this, it’s easy to understand why Leuchter would be interested in the humanness of prisoner executions. In the documentary Leuchter discusses his views on capital punishment by saying, “I’m a proponent of capital punishment. I am not a proponent of capital torture.”
Although Leuchter’s college degree is in history and not in engineering, he became a self-made “expert” in the redesign of the electric chair. After making the chair at the Tennessee State Prison more humane, Leuchter was hired by several other prisons to do the same. Leuchter said he was then asked by government agencies to work on developing a lethal-injection machine. After that, he says he was asked to consult of the functionality of prison gas chambers in several states. Leuchter contends that it was his expertise in the electric chair that gained him a reputation as an execution expert although he does not see how the three forms of execution are related.
Okay, so a self-educated man practices some engineering and works in a field that may come across as distasteful to some people, so what? As with any Errol Morris documentary, this part of the story is only the beginning.
In 1988, Leuchter was contacted by the defense team for historical revisionist Ernst Zundel who was being tried in a Canadian court for distributing Holocaust-denial materials. Leuchter was apparently the only “execution expert” of his kind and was asked to go to Poland to investigate whether or not Auschwitz really had gas chambers and the capability to execute people.
As an “expert” for Zundel’s defense, Leuchter takes his new bride Caroline (who was not so happy about spending her honeymoon at a Polish death camp) and a filmmaker to record his trip as well as how he retained the samples he would eventually send to a lab to test for the presence of Cyanide gas.
I remind you here that Leuchter has a degree in history, not in engineering and definitely not in science. Although he may have been called an expert and retained as an expert by the defense, this area of study was not his expertise. Then again, a lawyer defending a man who denies the Holocaust happened saw Leuchter as just the expert his client needed.
Once Leuchter returned from Poland, he sent his samples to a lab without telling the lab how to test the samples because he did not have this expertise or knowledge and did not tell them where the samples came from and what they were for. Leuchter only knew that the test results did not show the presence of Cyanide gas.
Leuchter never questions his own education or qualifications in the matter and writes up what is now known as the “Leuchter Report.” The judge on the Zundel trial refuses to enter the report into evidence but allows Leuchter to testify as an informational exhibit. Leuchter states that after 40 years of believing there were gas chambers at these concentration camps, he was not convinced by what was at Auschwitz when he visited. With this reasoning, Leuchter begins to believe that Ernst Zundel is correct in his beliefs and that the Holocaust did not happen as he had been taught.
After Leuchter presents his report in the Zundel case, historical revisionist David Irving then proceeds to publish the Leuchter report for mass distribution among members of the Aryan nation. Each printing of the report sells out and then Irving expands the publication to include translations into other languages.
At no point does Leuchter state anything in the film about being anti-Semetic or pro-Nazi. He simply says he changes his mind based on his personal experience and his own findings. What is unclear is whether he understood the motivations of people like Ernst Zundel and David Irving. It would be a fair assumption to believe that he had some idea since after the trial Leuchter spoke at various historical-revisionist conferences.
In between the footage and details of the trial and Leuchter’s report, Morris introduces his audience to chemist James Roth who is the man who conducted the tests on Leuchter’s samples. Morris also interviews architectural historian, professor, and Holocaust scholar Robert Jan Van Pelt, who each discuss the flaws in Leuchter’s investigation.
Errol Morris has to take his audience through Leuchter’s life in order to watch Leuchter paint himself as a humanitarian who cares about his fellow man and who cares about the truth. However pride and ignorance led Leuchter to embrace a denial of the truth and his downfall. Morris does an incredible job of taking his audience inside the mind of a Holocaust denial. And what makes this documentary so brilliant is that Leuchter becomes an example of how horrific movements like Holocaust deniers continue to increase their ranks.
As with all Errol Morris films, Mr. Death is visually captivating and draws its audience in from the first moment of the opening credits with the use of a Tesla coil and haunting music and holds their attention the entire time. Morris uses beautiful scenes of recreation that flow seamlessly with his interviews and archival footage. The film is such an intimate narrative that it leaves its audience feeling like they were in the same room with Leuchter all along.