NetFlix Review #14: Mr. Death

I try to be a good cinephile and engage in a wide breadth of movie-watching, but one area in which I fall painfully short is the documentary. I see very few of them, and am terribly illiterate on the subject. However, one person I've always been intrigued by is Errol Morris. In the few documentaries I've seen by him he has an incredible knack for finding stories that are difficult, unusual and engaging. For instance, recently statesman Robert McNamara passed away, and if you have not seen Errol Morris' portrait of the man in "The Fog of War," you truly owe it to yourself to do so. As Emily and I were setting up our Netflix account we decided we'd throw some documentaries on the list, and I spoke out for some Errol Morris. And thus we watched Mr. Death.

Morris tells us the story of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr, an engineer who stumbled into the rather singular business of "humanitizing" state execution machines. His father was a prison warden, he'd been around them all his life, and he had been disgusted not by the essence of capital punishment, but by its sloppiness. He tells of electrocutions gone horribly wrong, where the skin melts, the eyes explode and the bowels let loose cause not only undue indignity on the executed, but a potential danger to the executees, as a growing puddle of urine and a powerful electrical current are not safe bedfellows. In essence, Leuchter is a man who can think in stark, practical terms about extremely horrific, emotional occurences that most people would rather not think on at all. This works out surprisingly well for him business-wise. That is, of course, until the neo-nazis show up.

Leuchter's life takes a turn for the even more bizarre and horrific when Ernst Zundel, a neo-nazi on trial in Canada for Holocaust Denial, contacts Leuchter with a proposition: go to Auschwitz, see if he can find proof of the massive cyanide gassing that is alleged to have taken place there. And away Leuchter goes. He claims to find no evidence of cyanide poisoning, supports a neo-nazi in court, and his marriage falls apart, his work completely dries up and now no one comes within ten feet of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. unless they're making a documentary about him.

Lest you think I've given away the whole shebang, let me implore you to please, please check out this film. If anything, you'll be talking about it with the people you view it with long after the movie is finished. Morris has an amazing ability to recognize the heart of a story and find its most complex and dramatic tensions. It would be easy to paint Leuchter as an idiot, and many in the film do. It would be easy to paint Leuchter as a monster, and many in the film do. Morris steps back and lets all these people have their way with Leuchter, as well as letting Leuchter defend himself, and in holding all of these different approaches in stark contrast with each other, he lets the viewer make their own way through the story. In this way his documentaries are my favorite kind of art. It's going to mean something entirely different to everyone who watches it.

I love Roger Ebert, and frequently read his reviews after almost any movie I see. I read him after as I like to go into a movie as fresh as possible and enjoy picking something apart after I've seen it. Ebert, I find, does a fine job by and large with not only detailing what he did and did not enjoy about a film, but he also examines and conveys what a movie means to him as a viewer. I was fascinated by his take on Mr. Death, as he focuses largely on paralleling the state sponsored death machines Leuchter made with the state sponsored death machines of the Holocaust, and how we have created the ultimate villian out of Hitler, the man who ran the world's biggest state sponsored killing agenda, but had no problem electing as president a man who oversaw the state of Texas during the most productive years of state execution in America. In case you haven't guessed, Ebes is pretty vehemently anti-death penalty, and hence his watching of the film flows through that lens.

I myself was struck by how simple it seems it would have been to correct Mr. Leuchter, but instead everyone seemed to find it easier and better to make him a villian. Leuchter makes a point of saying, and I feel inclined to believe him as he certainly doesn't seem too interested in protecting his self-image elsewhere, that he is certainly not a neo-nazi and believes that the nazis did many, many awful things, he just doesn't believe there were gassings at Auschwitz. Leucher based this belief on analysis of pieces of the walls of Auschwitz he attained illegally, his examination of the area after years and years and damage and his understanding of how gas diffusion works. All of these are flawed, and easily deconstructed by professionals. When Leuchter sent in his samples to a lab for analysis he did not tell them where they came from or what he was looking for (trace elements of cyanide), as he wanted to have a blind, bias-free analysis. Which seems reasonable, except that if they'd known what he was looking for they would have informed him that any trace elements of cyanide would have been extraordinarily miniscule and would have been destroyed when they broke apart the samples for testing. However, it appears no one sat Leuchter down and told him about any of this. No one offered to re-run the experiments the correct way. No one offered any understanding. Except, of course, for the neo-nazis and white supremicist.

And so you have a man who speaks at historical revisionist societies not because he's a racist, but because he sincerely yet mistakenly believes that the historical record is incorrect, and these are the only people who won't call him a racist or a monster, but accept him. However, in a last, nasty little bit of irony, even they don't truly accept him 100%. Ernst Zundel, the man whose trial created all of these problems for Leuchter, speaks of Leuchter as being a great benefit and boon to his cause, but also as being childlike and, in many ways, slightly imbecillic. He appreciates that the man has helped his cause, but since Leuchter isn't a "true believer" in the sum total of Zundel's racist philosophy, he's dismissed as soon as his usefulness is over.

What you are left with is a portrait of a sad, lonely little monster who wanted to be important. A man with an odd, limited, self-selected set of skills whose reach far exceeded his grasp. He's also one of the most fascinating characters you're likely to see, and it's well worth a couple of hours to get to know him.