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"Mr. Death" undergoes a fair execution

By Peter Keough

JANUARY 31, 2000:  Evil may be banal, but under the absurdist gaze of filmmaker Errol Morris, it's also entertaining. For him, the ultimate evil is boredom. Next comes death, the dark obsession underlying all his movies. From the animal cemeteries of Gates of Heaven to the doomed animal topiary of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, from the innocent man imprisoned on death row in The Thin Blue Line to the omniscient man imprisoned in an impotent body in A Brief History of Time, mortality arouses as much fun as terror.

So why is Mr. Death, which should have provided Morris with his most fertile subject, such a disappointment? Maybe it's the subject's similarities to the filmmaker. True, at first glance, there don't seem to be any. Fred A. Leuchter Jr. is a banal, possibly evil man devoid of irony or self-consciousness. A small-time engineer from Malden, the bespectacled, owlish Leuchter (the subject also of Stephen Trombley's harrowing 1992 documentary The Execution Protocol) earned some fame and fortune as a designer of execution equipment for the death industry that sprang up once the Supreme Court upheld capital punishment.

The best moments in Mr. Death come when Leuchter simply talks about himself to the camera (Morris's patented "Interrortron" system of filming holds the gaze with hypnotic intensity), as he matter-of-factly describes how he got into the business, how he found himself elevated from obscurity to expert status in a small but growing field, his disgust with the woeful state of the then extant equipment, and his crusade for "humane" executions. Leuchter explains that though he's for the death penalty, he's against torture, and his graphic descriptions of botched executions (bolstered by literally shocking footage of the electrocution of an elephant filmed by Edison in 1903, and a grueling close-up of a lethal-injection needle being inserted) indicate that macabre though his service was, it filled a need. Once you accept his premise, the rest follows logically -- if people must be executed, someone must see that it's done right. Only Leuchter's suggestions about putting pictures on the walls of the lethal-injection death chamber, or his insistence on being photographed in an electric chair he was contracted to upgrade, underline his position's essential creepiness and inhumanity.

What's more, when Leuchter ventures beyond his specialized niche into the arena of world history, he gets into trouble -- and so does Morris. In 1988, neo-Nazi Ernst Zündel, on trial in Canada for claiming that the Holocaust didn't happen, needed an "execution expert" to prove that Auschwitz was not a death camp. Perhaps the only person answering that description was Leuchter, and motivated by -- hubris? a thirst for truth? anti-Semitism? easy money? Morris never really presses him on this -- the weasly hangman gathered up his new bride (the honeymoon-in-Auschwitz-angle is something Morris could have made more of) and headed for Poland.

That's where Death gets murky. Leuchter's own account of his study, backed by the officious videos he had taken of himself exploring the ruins of the death camp and (illegally) taking samples, has the nerdy authenticity of the real thing. Only his conclusion -- that the greatest and most meticulously documented abomination in history never happened -- and the portrait of Leuchter as meek megalomaniac that Morris has already presented reveals his research as madness. But as a New Yorker story pointed out, not everybody got the point: screenings, including one at Harvard of all places, left many people confused. So Morris felt obliged to bring out his own experts -- as well as some ill-conceived re-creations of Leuchter's work in Auschwitz -- to state the not-so-obvious.

Maybe he would have done better to return to the source and accord Leuchter enough rope to hang himself. Morris never really confronts him with the enormity of his deal with the Devil -- though scientifically worthless, his The Leuchter Report has sold millions of copies and is widely available on the Internet, an invaluable source for Holocaust revisionists. Instead, Leuchter comes off as a dolt and a dupe, and finally a victim. His subsequent notoriety left him without a wife, a house, or work (a classified ad offering a "control module for lethal injection machine" is one of the film's many gems).

Why does Morris allow Leuchter this last-minute reprieve? Maybe he saw on the other side of his camera a reflection of himself. After all, in The Thin Blue Line, Morris, like Leuchter, sought to overturn a murder conviction using disputed methods. And though Leuchter has his human-execution devices, Morris has his humane interrogation device, the Interrortron; each in its way takes the life of its subject. Most important, both men are in the business of death -- one banal, the other poetic -- and maybe Morris didn't want to give away any trade secrets.

Death wish

It's never just one subject with Errol Morris. Within minutes his focus shifts from the proposed logo for his new TV series (a severed chicken foot clutching at a light bulb) to the new rules for selecting the best documentary nominees for the Academy Awards (never nominated before, he's in this year's final cut) to the aesthetics of TV commercials (he's especially proud of one he made for Miller High Life that features a "beeramid"). At last he lights on the subject at hand, his new Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

"I first heard about him in 1990," he remembers. "A couple of years after The Thin Blue Line, and not terribly interested in doing yet another capital-punishment story. Been there, done that. But I was interested in the story. We were using this device, the Interrortron, for the first time, and I wanted to test the device before shooting the four characters for Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.

"So we brought in Fred, and I don't remember when I became aware of all the Holocaust-denial stuff, but I was certainly aware of it before I brought him into the interview. That was, if you like, what put the story over the top, the fact that there were these two elements, the Holocaust element and the capital-punishment element. But I was not at all prepared for what happened in that first interview. I still think it is one of the best interviews I have ever done, and having heard the interview, I wanted to make a film out of it. It was just so strange, it was so absurd, it was so funny . . . deeply surreal."

Not everyone found it funny, however. Some took it too seriously, at least in the wrong way.

"I showed it [a cut of the film] to an audience in Harvard, actually Mark Singer in the New Yorker wrote this piece about it. This is part of my standard operating procedure. Because it [the movie] can in fact become lost in the editing room. And so it's a way of finding out whether you are living in some kind of fantasy world. To me it was obvious that Fred was absurd and wrong; to others looking at the movie, not so. And so that meant that it would be just deeply irresponsible to release the movie in that form. If someone makes a factual claim in error, you just can't say, well, fine, we'll just let it go. And the fact that he is wrong, of course, is important to the story. People don't get it, in and of themselves, and they need a crutch. I like the movie in its current form, I was able to have my cake and eat it too, I was able to make a portrait principally of Fred."

Who, in fact, is Fred? An anti-Semite? A persecuted truthseeker? A nut?

Morris sees him as a human being. "What's so interesting about this story is how Fred can see himself as a good guy throughout and attach to himself a whole catalogue of virtues. Whether it's his Florence Nightingale role on death row, or his championing the underdog [neo-Nazi Ernst Zünder], as he sees it, on trial in Canada, or defending the right to free expression, seeing himself as some kind of crusading scientist, a Galileo figure . . . It goes on and on. I guess the central question for me is what does Fred think he's doing? Is this just shtick? Is he a victim or a victimizer, or both? How does he justify this to himself? Is he just clueless?

"I don't look at it as a banality-of-evil story. I think it's an absurd story, a story about vanity, among other things. A story about an absurd quest for supposed truth that ends up in nightmare. Rather than finding out anything about the world, Fred is lost in a labyrinth. And is not aware of it. Because we are all lost in a labyrinth, we're just aware of it."

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