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cover: Mr. Death Rise & Fall of Fred A Leuchter, Jr

Mr. Death Rise & Fall of Fred A Leuchter, Jr

Director(s): Errol Morris

Theatrical Release: 1999

Cast: Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Suzanne Tabasky, Robert Jan Van Pelt, Ernest Zündel

Genre(s): Documentary, biography

Countries: USA

Location in store: Documentary > Errol Morris

(1 / 1)
Ant Rating
Running Time: 96m.

Throughout his work, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has sought out characters lost in their own eccentric worlds, and he has managed to convey their sense of wonder with their passion, be it a topiary gardener arguing the merits of hand shears in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) or astrophysicist Stephen Hawking discussing the origin of the universe in A Brief History of Time (1992). In his most provocative work since The Thin Blue Line (1988), Morris details what happens when this interior dreamscape collides with the hard facts of history. As a young man accompanying his father to work at a state prison, Fred A. Leuchter, a bespectacled mouse of a man, learned how inefficient and inhumane most executions were, and he set out to design and build a better electric chair. Soon he began getting offers from state institutions throughout the country to redesign their electric chairs, along with gas chambers, gallows, and lethal injection machines. He quickly became a renowned expert in capital punishment. With Morris's typical ironic gaze, the audience listens, part-laughing, part-aghast, as Leuchter discusses the relative merits of one execution method over another. Up to this point, the film seems like a morbid extension of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control — until Morris takes a sudden and daring turn into uncharted territories. When the notorious Nazi sympathizer Ernest Zündel was arrested in Canada, he needed an expert witness to corroborate his assertion that the Holocaust was a hoax; and Leuchter soon found himself chiseling chunks from the gas chamber walls in Auschwitz — on his honeymoon. His illegal samples showed no significant residue of cyanide, so he concluded that the Holocaust did not happen. He soon became a celebrity of the neo-Nazi set: he testified on behalf of Zündel, gave lectures around the world, and published the Holocaust revisionist tract Leuchter Report. Much to his surprise, his death-machine business began to flounder, his marriage collapsed, and he found himself pursued by Jewish organizations and creditors. What makes this film so chilling is that Leuchter does not appear to be an ideologue. Instead, the audience is presented with a seemingly sane, albeit eccentric, individual, whose faith in his ability to reason was undone by his vanity and simple-mindedness. This film was screened at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival. — Jonathan Crow (