Tuesday, February 2, 2016

MR DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL...


In a harrowing example of ego run amok, Fred Leuchter Jr., aka “Mr. Death,” goes from not understanding how he, an uncertified engineer from the bland, working class town of Malden, Massachusetts, would be hired to create new electric chairs and lethal injection machines for state prisons all over America,  to hailing himself as the only man qualified to prove whether or not gas chambers were used in the extermination of Jews during World War II.  But throughout his strange life, certainly as depicted in Errol Morris’ eerie, bittersweet  Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., (a 1999 documentary now on TubiTV), Leuchter seemed to bumble into things, whether it was his marriage to a donut shop waitress (who must have been impressed with Leuchter’s 40-cups of coffee daily) to a lucrative gig as a maker of execution equipment, to his time as a spokesman for an anti-holocaust group, as if he were a sort of bizarro-world Forrest Gump.

We learn about Leuchter (pronounced “Looshter”, I think) from his own brief narrative, home movies, dreamy reenactments, and some period photographs, but his early years seemed to go by without much drama. His father worked in a prison, and young Leuchter would sometimes accompany his dad to work, where he spent time with the cons and learned how to pick locks and safes, things that amused and intrigued a youngster. It may have been this interacting with the prisoners that lead to his concern over finding humane ways of execution. Leuchter is at his most compelling – dare I say charming – when railing against the horrors of faulty electric chairs, which could result in anything from a condemned man’s scalp catching fire, to having his eyeballs blown across the room. Though not especially morbid, Leuchter is shown several times playfully strapping himself into one of his killing devices. He also plays along with Morris, who shows him early in the movie as a kind of grinning weirdo, presiding over his inventions with a ghoulish smile as lightning crackles all around.

A large part of the film is dedicated to Leuchter being asked in 1988 to help defend Ernst Zundel, a neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier on trial in Canada for spreading hate literature. Leuchter packed his bags and brought his new wife to Auschwitz on what he laughingly deemed their “honeymoon.” She stayed in the car, reading mysteries  and doing crossword puzzles, while he wore a heavy sweater and scraped the walls of an abandoned gas chamber. As one of his critics describes him, Leuchter was a “fool” who believed in the “Sherlock Holmes style” of discovery, hoping to find a clue of a thread or an old shoelace. Leuchter’s flimsy findings lead him to stand up in court and declare the gas chambers were not likely to have exterminated the millions of Jews on record. That his findings were scientifically unsound is covered in the movie, but what is more intriguing is the way he soaks up the adulation of neo-Nazi groups and Holocaust revisionists. When he speaks in public, defending himself and his research, he seems to grow taller, bolder. No longer the mousey geek of the early part of the film, he’s found an audience, hence, he’s found his voice. His ensuing pamphlet published by Zundel’s group, The Leuchter Report: An Engineering Report on the Alleged Execution Chambers at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Majdanek Poland, has been quoted endlessly by neo-Nazi groups. Unfortunately for Leuchter, his alliance with the Nazi groups resulted in him losing his gig as a maker of electric chairs. His wife dumped him, too. Not, I’m assuming, because she objected to his new friends’ beliefs, but because he was spending so much time with them. 

Had Leuchter not aligned himself with anti-Holocaust groups, he might’ve been a good subject for Morris’ previous documentary, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,  a sweeping, tangled narrative about a robot inventor, an expert on naked mole rats, a lion tamer, and a topiary gardener, each talking about their views on life. But once you’ve joined a fringe set whose raison d’etre is to deny perhaps the most heinous act in mankind’s history, you’ve crossed the line from lovable eccentric to something more sinister. Leuchter’s story, though, works almost like a fable. Here’s the little schnook  who has lived his life far under the radar. Suddenly, he has an audience. So what if there’s an even larger audience that will dismiss him as a flake? He doesn’t care, because there’s a group out there in the margins of society that needs him, wants him, hangs onto his every word. Adulation is as  intoxicating as any drug, especially when you’ve gone through life unnoticed, a horse-toothed little man with no clout. I looked at Leuchter not as an evil character, but as a bit of a boob, and an attention addict, someone so clueless that he once tried to sell an electric chair through the local want-ads. I'm not even certain he's an anti-Semite. I think he merely wants applause. I also think of him as being out on a ledge, afraid to come back inside, determined to defend his findings rather than admit he might have screwed up. If he admits defeat, he loses his Nazi audience. And they are all he has left, his blanket against anonymity, his fix.

Roger Ebert said in his original review in 1999 that Errol Morris’ movies provide  us “with no comfortable place to stand.” True, but what Mr Death left me wondering was this:  Here’s a guy who dreams of an execution where the condemned person can hear music or watch television as he or she is injected or shocked to death. He wishes the condemned could sit back comfortably, as if in a reclining chair. Morris, one of the best documentary makers ever, missed a beautiful opportunity by not asking Leuchter how he’d design Hitler’s gas chambers. Would there be rows of TVs? Piped in music? Because you can safely bet that at some point since 1988, this very thought has passed through Leuchter’s mind.

 

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