Strange life of `Mr. Death'

Movie reviews

March 31, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Fred A. Leuchter made a name for himself by building a better deathtrap.

A tinkerer who nurtured a fascination with prisons since he accompanied his father to work at the Massachusetts state penitentiary, Leuchter devised an electric chair in the 1980s that was more humane to prisoners. On the basis of that resume high point, prisons from all over the country approached Leuchter to invent and improve on lethal injection systems, gallows and gas chambers.

It was this last item that brought Leuchter to the attention of Ernst Zundel, who in 1988 was on trial in Canada for publishing tracts with names like "Did Six Million Really Die?" and "The Hitler We Loved and Why." For his defense, Zundel asked Leuchter to travel to Poland and investigate the ruins of Auschwitz, to determine whether the chambers there were really used to exterminate hundreds of thousands of people by cyanide gas. Leuchter went, illegally chipped and broke off scores of pieces of the international shrine, had the pieces chemically analyzed and traveled to Canada as an expert witness for Zundel.

Having started out as a man whose chief concern was ensuring that prisoners meeting their deaths were accorded all the compassion and dignity they deserved, Leuchter ended up being one of the chief apologists for the Holocaust denial movement, in his words, "a reluctant revisionist."

His sad, strange tale is absorbingly related in "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter," a film by Errol Morris that relates with startling intimacy how narcissism, self-deception and the banality of evil conspire to create the monster next door. Morris, whose distinctive style has made such documentaries as "The Thin Blue Line" and "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" masterpieces of narrative and emotional expression, at first presents Leuchter as something of a babbitt, a man who talks about "off the shelf items" and "20 percent mark-ups" like any other widget salesman, except that his widgets are designed to kill people.

But when Leuchter gets to Poland, what has been a bumbling, but essentially harmless, craving for attention takes a darker turn. Astonishingly, Zundel sent a video crew to document every moment of Leuchter's defacement and fatuous running commentary ("I have taken samples from the floor and am now ascending to the surface"), and the result is the portrait of a foolishness that would be absurdly funny if it weren't in the service of such a shameful enterprise.

Morris, who first interviewed Leuchter several years ago, sketches with deliberate restraint the terrible arc of Leuchter's career, from being the "Florence Nightingale of Death Row" to becoming a pariah, beloved by neo-Nazis and revisionist oddballs. Using interviews, the Auschwitz videotape, re-enactments and a characteristically stylized production design, Morris has made a film that may not be on the scale of his earlier works but exerts the hypnotic power of tragedy nonetheless.

Ultimately, Leuchter's role in the cause cost him his family and his job, but to the end he seems unwilling to grasp his own complicity in his plight. "Mr. Death" provides a haunting reminder that evil doesn't announce itself in lightning strikes, but ebbs and flows, constantly moving among and within us.

`Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter'

Directed by Errol Morris

Rated PG-13

Running time 91 minutes

Released by Lions Gate Films

Sun score * * *

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