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MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER, JR. (DVD)
Now this is movie making. Typically, documentaries are dry and devoid of cinematic style. They tell a story or shed light on
a subject but have little to offer the moviegoer in regard to a beautiful or endearing cinematic experience. Errol Morris, however,
is a brilliant filmmaker and serves up both style and substance with "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.".
This is the story of an odd character, Fred Leuchter, self-proclaimed expert on all matters surrounding capital punishment. His introduction to execution came early in life… his father was a Massachusetts prison guard and young Fred used to visit his father at work and was known to sit in the electric chair just for fun. When states began reinstating the death penalty, Fred's true calling was in great need and he designed a "better" electric chair.
Whatever your opinion of the death penalty, any sensible person will agree that a humane death is paramount. Leuchter desires to provide just that and goes into fairly graphic detail regarding the events that can occur when a convict is put to death via poorly constructed electrocution. It can be pretty ugly, rest assured. Leuchter designs and builds devices that circumvent this inherent nastiness and provides a less gruesome (and theoretically less painful) experience for all parties involved. In his field, Leuchter is the king. (A warning to those who are off-put by animal cruelty: There is one segment of footage from the early 1900s that shows an elephant being electrocuted in what presumably is a primitive experiment.)
Based on his successes with the electric chair, Leuchter is soon contracted to assist with other means of execution: Lethal injection machine design and gas chamber and gallows repair. Apparently, in the inmate-killing field, electrical engineers are qualified to branch out into other media. Leuchter's experience takes him places most people do not wish to go. He has no qualms regarding his chosen profession or the end result of the devices he creates.
At some point along the way, all of this "expertise" talk goes to Leuchter's head and his position as king of the execution devices takes a sharp downturn. Leuchter's notoriety brings him into the camp of "Revisionist Historian" and white supremacist, Ernst Zundel. Zundel is on trial in Canada for publishing literature that denies the occurrence of the Holocaust. He needs help (in more ways than one) and turns to "execution specialist" Leuchter to assist in his efforts to disprove the atrocities that took place during World War II.
Leuchter takes to the assignment like a kid in a candy shop and drags a team of cameramen along to document the "scientific" study. Based on his somewhat limited experience repairing gas chambers, Leuchter truly believes that he is the man for the job and tackles the ruins of Auschwitz with vigor. Unfortunately, Leuchter is sadly unqualified and has developed such an enormous ego that he neglects to even bother consulting anyone about forensic technique. He clearly has no clue what he is doing, pounding away at the chamber walls with hammer and chisel to gather samples which, when analyzed, will supposedly show whether or not these buildings were used for the purpose people claim they were. Never mind that he neglects to label the samples or even inform the chemist who will test the samples the true nature of the study to insure that a) samples were collected correctly (which, it seems evident they were not) and b) that the proper tests are conducted. Leuchter is in way over his head.
But full steam ahead, as they say… Leuchter, convinced of his brilliance publishes "The Leuchter Report" that empirically claims these walls did not house a gas chamber and hence, the Holocaust never occurred. This is quite a leap of faith in one's own techniques if you ask me. Subsequently, all hell breaks loose and Leuchter finds himself in the unfortunate position of being the subject of a great deal of talk of anti-Semitism as well as a blackball campaign which quickly results in the termination of any contracts he has pending to produce additional electric chairs or lethal injection devices. Leuchter soon looses everything: his wife, his home and his livelihood.
Morris has constructed a story that is less about the validity of capital punishment and than about egoism and naiveté. Leuchter comes across as an individual unable to see outside himself or to see his true place and status in the world. One must have the ability to step outside one's own thoughts and view the world as a whole. Leuchter lives in a self-constructed bubble and is so enamored with his own supposed brilliance that he cannot recognize when he has overstepped his bounds. His insistence on going it alone is his downfall and Morris captures this with beauty and style not often seen in fictional cinema. If only all this were a construct of someone's imagination… As they say, truth is often stranger than fiction.
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