Why do otherwise rational people believe in the weirdest of things, in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary? This is the question lurking in the background of Errol Morris’s new documentary, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Powerful and disturbing, this is a startling portrait of man so blinkered by vanity that he lives in a fantasy world of his own making, rationality be damned.
Fred Leuchter is an odd bird by any reckoning. A self-taught engineer with an obsession with capital punishment, Leuchter stumbled into the death-penalty business accidentally. Concerned about the “deplorable condition” of execution hardware in prisons, Leuchter, on his own time and at his own expense, designed a new electric chair that would allow for more “humane” killings. With the manner of an appliance salesman, Leuchter leads us through a death chamber, demonstrating the use of his chair and dispassionately describing how electricity kills humans, and what can go wrong. Obviously proud of his accomplishment, he boasts that this new chair is reasonably priced.
Leuchter’s reputation as a consultant on electric chairs grew to the point at which prisons began approaching him to come up a new lethal injection systems and new gas chambers. Even Leuchter himself admits bafflement as why expertise with the chair should qualify him for such jobs, but he takes it nevertheless. It’s this capability of his to believe his own press that ultimately leads to his ruin.
While Morris doesn’t take a particularly sympathetic view of Leuchter, Mr. Death does not treat its subject unkindly, either. A sad figure of a man, Leuchter has some strange ideas about the auras and spirits of the condemned inhabiting the devices that execute them, but on the whole, Leuchter is not stupid and not crazy, and Morris doesn’t try to portray him as such. What Leuchter does very well on his own (in the press material for the film, Morris discusses how Leuchter would talk and talk and talk without the need for prompting during interviews) is to show his own lack of introspection. Like a child, Leuchter seems without a moral compass or even moral awareness: He says over and over again that prisoners are human beings who deserve dignity and respect, but he sees no irony in the fact that he is helping to kill people. “I sleep very well at night,” he says — he’s “comforted” by the thought of “more humane, painless executions.”
A failure to see the big picture is what leads Leuchter to his involvement with Ernst Zündel, a Canadian Holocaust denier who in 1988 was tried in Toronto for publishing material he knew was untrue and would provoke racial intolerance. In an effort to prove that the Holocaust never happened, the defense hired Leuchter to go to Poland, take illegal samples from the crumbling remains of Auschwitz and Birkenau, and test them for evidence of cyanide gas — which he didn’t find. Leuchter was appallingly unqualified for such work, and as we see in the video footage shot in Poland, had no idea whatsoever what he was doing. But Leuchter remains proud of his work in “proving” that the Holocaust didn’t happen, and utterly mystified that he has provoked such an outcry from historians and Jewish activists. He maintains that he “was the only expert in the world” to give Zündel a “fair defense.”
Leuchter is “under his own spell,” one Holocaust activist says; “I pity him.” That’s the feeling I was left with after Mr. Death: that Leuchter is not an evil man, but one badly misled by his own hubris. Errol Morris quite effectively shows us the dank, nightmarish dreamscape of a life that Leuchter lives.