Published January 1, 2000
Errol Morris’s fascinating documentary, Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A Leuchter, Jr. is another chapter in the long and tragic history of the great American autodidact. Like so many of those immensely likeable and distinctively American “characters” who believe that they can reinvent the world, Fred is ultimately swallowed up by the bad intellectual habits that such a belief tends to engender: the hermeticism of those who imagine that they are privy to hidden—if not forbidden—knowledge and the gnosticism of those who suppose that such knowledge will give them godlike powers. Perhaps Fred’s trouble is that he got used to the godlike powers quite early on in life, as a designer of execution equipment, and so found it natural to proceed to the hidden knowledge.
For Morris shows Fred one day happily designing electric chairs, gas chambers, gallows and lethal injection systems for various state governments—and shrewdly observing that his self-taught expertise in the designing of one is not in itself a reason for supposing that he knows anything about designing the others (though fortunately he does)—and the next a ruined man, undone by the one man not involved with a state penal system who flatters him by treating him as an expert. This is Ernst Zündel, a Holocaust denier who calls on Fred as an expert witness in his trial under Canadian law for inciting racial hatred.
Fred, with little more idea of what he is doing than anyone picked up off the street might have had, travels to Auschwitz in order surreptitiously to lift samples of brick and cement from the remaining gas chambers there. Returning to the U.S., he submits these samples for chemical analysis to see if there are any traces of cyanide gas in them. There are not, and he triumphantly concludes, on the Canadian witness stand and under oath, that people could not have been executed in those chambers, as is alleged by virtually the entire historical profession, to say nothing of a great many eye-witnesses who managed to survive the experience.
Without comment, Morris puts on the screen a scientist who performed the analysis to explain why it proved nothing. The gas would have penetrated the brick only to a depth of a few paltry microns, says the technician, and Fred had not thought to specify which bits of brick, now all ground up together, were from the side facing the chamber. The lab’s task had been “like analyzing paint on the wall by looking at the timbers behind it.” But, Fred, with the enthusiastic support of Zündel, who continues to flatter him by comparing him to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, sticks to his intellectual guns. As a result, he loses all his state contracts for designing execution equipment and his wife leaves him.
Yet what is most memorable about this movie is in many ways the comically clinical way in which Leuchter talks of his passion for what strikes most of us as the gruesome details of judicial murder. With a botched electrocution, he cheerfully informs Morris’s camera, “The meat comes off the executee’s body like a chicken.” The word “executee” is almost as disgustingly funny as the simile. In the same way, he talks about his ideal site for lethal injections as if it were a dentist’s office, with “a contour chair, television, music, pictures on the wall.” This is what he thinks of as “humane”—which lends a certain piquancy to the unconscious humor of his saying that, technically, “there’s no difference in a life support system and an execution system” or that “the warden is in many respects the surrogate father of the man being executed.”
Getting to know this absurd little man—the fact, for instance, that he claims to drink 40 cups of coffee and to smoke six packs of cigarettes a day—is a necessary prelude to the spectacle of his uncomprehending ruin on taking up the cause of Holocaust denial. Life to him is a series of engineering problems which he is unshakably confident of his ability to solve, but the nature of those problems, together with his glib talk of the “humane” considerations in solving them, shows us a man with no self-knowledge, no sense of irony and thus no ability to avoid the fate which ultimately overtakes him. There is a terrible but at the same time comic pathos in his advertising in a suburban shopping paper a lethal injection machine he had built before the order was canceled. “Anybody who’s interested in buying a lethal injection machine can contact me,” he says.
The historian David Irving, who is currently fighting his own battle to avoid the professionally deadly label of Holocaust denier, is interviewed on camera, calling Leuchtner “a mouse of a man….totally innocent; innocent in the sense of being a simpleton.” In taking up Zündel’s invitation, says Irving, he “had no idea what he was blundering into. . .He didn’t put his name on the line because he had no name. He came out of nowhere and went back to nowhere.” But you really should try to catch him in Morris’s film before he slips away for good.