Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. [1999]

Director Errol Morris has never shied away from difficult subjects: Gates of Heaven explores the world of pet cemeteries, and The Thin Blue Line sets out to prove that hitchhiker Randall Adams did not commit a murder. Morris's view is distinctive; he finds the dark humor and oddity in the most solemn of subjects. His controversial documentary Mr. Death, therefore, should not come as a surprise to audiences. The film begins on a surreal plane, as Fred Leuchter talks about his career as a designer of execution equipment. The son of a prison guard, Leuchter found himself in the execution game when, as an electrical engineer, he offered his services to help fix the electric chair used in North Carolina. His motivation? Humanitarian; previously the device in place would torture the prisoner before killing him. After his success in North Carolina, other states contacted him to help with their execution devices, and Leuchter helped devise lethal-injection devices, gas chambers, and gallows as well. From here, though, the film takes an even more bizarre twist. During this time in the late 1980s, Ernst Zündel was arrested in Canada for publishing neo-Nazi materials. Zündel hired Leuchter, as an expert on gas chambers, to go to Auschwitz to gather evidence of the Holocaust. Leuchter surreptitiously videotaped himself illegally gathering chunks of rock from the concentration camp, which he then analyzed. From these results he determined that the Holocaust did not occur, and he became an active historical revisionist. What he viewed as his definitive achievement, his paper The Leuchter Report, ultimately led to his fall, as states wouldn't work with him, Jewish groups targeted him, and neo-Nazis sought him. Mr. Death is frequently disturbing to watch, and Morris allows Leuchter to speak his mind with few interruptions. The tale that emerges is spellbinding, as Leuchter comes off not as anti-Semitic but as a deluded man with strong albeit misguided convictions. He is a fascinating character, and the only thing missing is more personal information about him beyond his daily intake of 40 cups of coffee and 100 cigarettes. --Jenny Brown

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