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    Mr. Death

    America's willing executioner

    Hey, somebody's got to design execution equipment, right? But as Errol Morris shows us how this strange little man got into the business and then became obsessed with Holocaust denial, we should ask ourselves: Did we create "Mr. Death"? Is he us?


    "Mr. Death" Fred A Leuchter Jr. wants you to know that he does what he does because he cares about people.

    Full title: Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A Leuchter Jr..
    Produced by: Errol Morris.
    Featuring: Fred A. Leuchter Jr..
    Cinematography: Peter Donohue.

    Related links: Official site

      Review: Standard Operating Procedure
    Errol Morris's documentary is a much less extraordinary exploration of Abu Ghraib than it should have been — delving into the little pictures without exploring the big picture or even the raw personalities of the people involved.

    As he sees it, designing execution equipment is a way of helping the condemned to die humanely and not be victimized by defective apparatus. If you're uncomfortable with the death penalty, you'll be aghast at the ease with which Leuchter discusses making machines that kill — but this strange, fascinating little man says up front that he's in favor of capital punishment (just not "capital torture") and so there's no shame in being a part of it. And it's true — if the states are going to kill people, they obviously need somebody to make the machinery, somebody like Leuchter.

    Leuchter would still be doing his job if he hadn't stumbled into cahoots with a bunch of Holocaust deniers and ruined his reputation. Errol Morris' new documentary shows him on a bizarre 1988 "research" trip to Nazi death camps in Poland, where he tromps through the ruins chipping pieces from the walls with a hammer in an effort to prove that the death chambers are a fraud. His findings make him a hero to fringe rightists worldwide but a pariah to death-penalty states uncomfortable to be associated with Nazi apologists.

    Mr. Death  
    Morris's attitude toward the death penalty is well known, since his most famous documentary, "The Thin Blue Line," freed an innocent man from death row in Texas and exposed the systemic corruption that put him there. "Mr. Death" returns to the issue on a conceptual level. If indirectly, it poses the question: Has our zeal for capital punishment lowered us to the moral level of a Fred Leuchter?

    One spokeswoman for a holocaust-survivor group denounces Leuchter as a committed anti-Semite, but Morris has described him as "the only Holocaust denier who's not an anti-Semite," and he's right. Leuchter never once hints that he hates Jews; on the contrary, he's just a guy who loves his job, which happens to be killing people. He discusses the mechanics of Nazi genocide as a mere engineering problem, and with an enthusiasm that shows he would have relished the job himself. He has no moral sense whatsoever. This is exactly the kind of man who makes the machinery of death function — whether for the Nazis or for us — and excuses himself as just following orders. Hitler had plenty of people like that; so do we. Fred Leuchter is an American creation; he's one of us.

      Filmmaker Errol Morris. in Mr. Death
      Filmmaker Errol Morris.
    Errol Morris has again brought his unique filmmaking style to a fascinating story. Luxurious slow-motion and mood lighting highlight the strangeness of the film's subject. And Morris continues his gift for finding the most extraordinary characters where nobody else was looking. "Mr. Death" is as potent as any film he's ever made and it may already be the scariest movie of 2000.

    DECEMBER 31, 1999

    Reader comments on Mr. Death:

  • He is one of us!   from John Hall, Mar 15, 2001

  • Post a comment on "Mr. Death"