But in his latest “non-fiction feature,” Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., he presents an eccentric with more dangerous tendencies: an obsession with death and execution that leads him to claim that the Holocaust is a lie. MARCY GOLDBERG caught the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, and spoke with its director.
Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is a funny-looking middle-aged man with thick glasses, buck teeth, and a geeky sense of humour. He also is – or rather, was – a self-taught “execution technician,” designing and servicing electric chairs, gallows and other lethal machinery for those American states where the death penalty is still carried out. Leuchter’s career was motivated by a lifetime obsession with death and technology, but also by the belief that capital punishment should be “humane”. But his life took a strange turn when he was asked to testify as a defence witness at the trial of Ernst Zundel, a German-born Canadian charged with disseminating hatred through his self-published pamphlets, such as “The Hitler We Loved and Why” and “Did Six Million Really Die?”
By his own account, Fred was the only possible “expert” who could be called to testify, since the US is the only country in the world that maintains gas chambers for executions. Recently married to a waitress from his favourite coffee shop, he spent his honeymoon at Auschwitz gathering samples for his own tests on whether functioning gas chambers could have ever existed there. He confused the gas chamber with the crematorium, didn’t consult any blueprints on the camp’s design, and ignored the fact that many buildings had been knocked down and rebuilt. He gave the wrong instructions to the chemistry lab hired to analyse the samples he stole from the site. But when he didn’t find any traces of cyanide anywhere, he concluded that the Holocaust was a lie. The publication of his “Leuchter Report” brought him recognition in neo-Nazi circles, but ultimately led to his downfall. As his activities as a Holocaust denier brought him into the spotlight, his clients boycotted him, his business failed, and his wife left him. At the end of the film he sits in a seedy hotel room, telling Errol Morris about his hard times – and still defending his theories…
Like the characters in Morris’ Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Fred Leuchter believes that his fascination with technology will help build a better world. So where did things go wrong? It is a great achievement of the film that it doesn’t demonise Fred: it offers an insightful portrait of the man, while at the same time making it clear that his theories are complete hogwash. Morris was less interested in debunking Fred’s theories than in examining how and why he could have developed these beliefs. Some critics have argued that the film does not go far enough in responding to the claims of the so-called “revisionists” who deny the Holocaust. But Morris has wisely chosen not to debate these people; instead, he reveals the bad logic on which their arguments are based and the vanity and self-deception that carry them along.
Using an interview machine called the “Interrotron,” Morris was able to get startlingly direct statements on film, not only from Fred, but from his supporters: the hate-mongerer Zundel, and the notorious British “revisionist” historian David Irving. Combined with the vivid visuals and intricate editing that Morris is known for, the result is a gripping film that unfolds like a detective thriller. Fred’s “rise and fall” comes to resemble a Greek tragedy, where pride and lack of self-doubt cause the hero to destroy himself. And we actually do feel sorry for him, knowing all the while that it is his own fault.
Marcy Goldberg: How did you discover “Mr. Death”?
Errol Morris: Fred interested me before I became aware of his activities as a Holocaust denier. I became aware of him through articles that appeared in the Atlantic and the New York Times in 1990. I had finished the Thin Blue Line not so long before: it came out in 1988. Fred had been described as “Dr. Death” and I had dealt with another Dr. Death in the course of making The Thin Blue Line, namely the Dallas psychiatrist who is asked to provide an expert opinion at the penalty phase of a trial and always says that the man will kill again. So I had more than a passing interest in the story. Of course when I became aware of the Holocaust denial, I became even more interested in the story and more interested in Fred. Because to me there’s the central question: why these two aspects of the story? What was it about his involvement in executions in the United States that led to the role that he eventually played for Ernst Zundel? It struck me as at the very least ironic that this person obsessed, clearly obsessed with death, ended up at the epicentre of death, Auschwitz.
There’s a striking line in the film, when Fred’s wife says: “I found out that he didn’t kill people, he made things that kill people.” That seems like an interesting kind of distinction to make.