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New Slant on Death: Fred A. Leuchter Jr. talks about the technology of killing in Errol Morris' new film.

Chamber Music

Errol Morris examines the curious case of Fred Leuchter Jr., an execution expert blind to consequences

By Richard von Busack

One of the early scenes in Errol Morris' new documentary, Mr. Death--The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., shows us the man of the title sitting in an electric chair, testing its fit. There may be a few Holocaust survivors who wish someone had thrown the switch.

Mr. Death is a scarifyingly funny, multifaceted film about a meek, middle-aged and divorced Massachusetts freelance engineer. Leuchter, who essentially worked out of his garage, became internationally notorious when he drifted into the business of constructing death-dealing equipment: electric chairs, gallows and lethal-injection rigs.

For the first half of the film, Leuchter seems to be as normal as anyone else in that unusual line of work. His justification is that if society has to have these tools, it's best if they work well. (Cold-blooded, but then again, that's the implicit moral in The Green Mile.)

Leuchter takes Morris on a tour of his improved-model electric chair with a steel basin in it, so that the murderer doesn't piss on the floor and make a mess. How does he sleep?, Morris asks. "I sleep with the comforting thought that these people have the better chance of a painless, more dignified death," Leuchter answers.

As an unofficial expert in gas chambers, Leuchter was picked up by a Holocaust denier named Ernst Zundel, who wanted scientific evidence that Germany never used cyanide gas on the victims of the Holocaust. ("Fred Leuchter was our only hope," Zundel tells the camera.)

The resulting illegal expedition to Auschwitz used chemical evidence to "prove" that the Holocaust never happened. The dubious tests Leuchter and Zundel performed spawned the Leuchter Report: a document that is an article of faith among neo-Nazis and is destined, as one analyst put it, for "the cesspool of pretentious human folly."

Morris (most famous for the documentary The Thin Blue Line) combines the participants' own words with obsessive re-enactments of the raid on Auschwitz itself (closeups of the picks chipping away at the walls of the gas chambers). It's a sick-humored film, horror-stricken and yet even-tempered.

The film doesn't take cheap shots. Morris could have--but didn't--mock Zundel for some of his other outrageous ideas, which can be found on the Internet. Consider, for example, Zundel's belief in the existence of Antarctic Nazi UFO bases and a Pellucidar-style lost continent deep inside the earth.

Morris even maintains a nonconfrontational tone during the interviews with David Irving, a Nazi villain of the old-moviestyle: supercilious, smug, diabolical. He's a British historian and biographer of Hitler who recently testified to Britain's High Court that an international Jewish conspiracy is trying to destroy his reputation.

Using the Leuchter report as "evidence," Irving describes Leuchter as "innocent in the sense of being a simpleton." Here it is again, the old-time Nazi coalition, then, between fascist intellectuals and working-class pawns to be used and discarded when no longer valuable.

If Leuchter comes across as an enigma after the film is over, Morris has got the engineer as he'd like to be seen. That may be enough. Leuchter spins ideas about how to execute more than one prisoner at a time on a gallows. He speaks of 50 electric chairs wired up to each other--an electric auditorium, so to speak. More cost-effective.

You may not know whether to laugh or cry at this insane vision, but it seems likely that Leuchter wouldn't hurt a fly, as Norman Bates once said. He made a pact with Nazis and fascists, apparently not because of any dislike for Jews but in the name of scientific inquiry. Leuchter musters for the camera the firm but modest pose of a man who has selflessly cleared up a baffling enigma.

It's one thing to hate the Nazis but another to hate the deniers: who wouldn't love to pretend the Holocaust never happened? The odd, frail, solitary Leuchter is the embodiment of all scientists so absorbed in research that they're oblivious to its implications, blind to the way it might be used for harm.

Mr. Death (PG-13; 91 min.), a documentary by Errol Morris, opens Feb. 11 at selected theaters.

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From the February 7, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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