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Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
reviewed by Greta Christina

A, please don't turn the page. Come on now. Documentaries can be good. Good documentaries can be especially good. Besides, people are always complaining about how regular movies are too phony, too artificial, too removed from human reality. And what could be less removed from reality than a movie about actual real people?

So anyway. A documentary by the rightly-acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line; Fast, Cheap and Out of Control) about Fred Leuchter, Jr., a self-taught expert in execution methods who became a Holocaust denier and a darling of the historical revisionist movement...and there you go again, getting ready to flip to the personals and the restaurant reviews. I know. I even have sympathy. It doesn't sound like a Friday night date movie to me, either. But trust me on this. I am pretty damn sure that you want to see this movie.

Although the focus of the film is on Leuchter's career as a Holocaust denier, this is only peripherally a movie about the Holocaust. What it's really about is arrogance, the kind of arrogance that can hold the weight of the entire real world at arm's length, that can believe anything at all about the world as long as the believer gets placed squarely in the center of it.

It's not your standard, stereotypical arrogance we're looking at here. This is not the swaggering arrogance of frat boys, or the patronizing arrogance of academia, or the detached arrogance of high society. His appearance, his manner, his way of speaking, everything about him screams of the mouse. He doesn't strike you as an ego inflated to the point of actual evil; if you were casting him in a movie, you'd never cast him as the evil mastermind. You'd cast him as the accountant.

Which is exactly what makes this such a strong movie. When the movie begins and Leuchter talks about the life he devoted to designing and repairing execution equipment, the picture you get is of a small, strange man, trying to do what he sees as some sort of good in the world. Even the staunchest opponents of the death penalty (and I'm a pretty damn staunch opponent of the death penalty myself) can see the striving for decency in the man's revulsion over the "death by torture" caused by botched equipment, his crusade to make state execution less cruel. So when the story shifts over, when Leuchter starts applying his execution expertise to his shabby, pathetic, ridiculous-if-it-weren't-so-repulsive "investigation" of the gas chambers at Auschwitz, it becomes impossible to simply dismiss him. Because he doesn't act like some generic asshole, you're forced to look at his arrogance more closely, even to identify with it. You can't just hold him at a distance and say, "See, that's what vanity and self-deception look like. That, out there."

And that, I think, is why I like this movie so much. It's too easy to see evil as this thing, this substance that lurks about in the world chuckling to itself. Darth Vader, or Emperor Ming, or Snidely Whiplash. It's much harder to see evil as a quality, a potential, a thing people do rather than a thing people are. And that's exactly what Mr. Death forces you to do. There are plenty of ranting red-faced Nazis in this movie, and director Morris could easily have pointed his camera at any of them. But by pointing it at Leuchter instead, at the strange, death-obsessed little mouse-man whose belief in his own expertise blinded him to the slaughter of millions, Morris makes us look at our own ordinary arrogance, our own desire to believe ourselves smart and right at the expense of the truth, and at the possible consequences of that belief.

Copyright 2000 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Frontiers.


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