A Swell Guy: Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

A Swell Guy: Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Entering into Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. without too much background on the film or the individual might be the best way by which to enjoy this 1999 documentary from Errol Morris (so, maybe you shouldn’t read the rest of this). If toting in expectations, the first half an hour of the film might be fluff as one waits for the ‘shocking’ revelation afforded by the subsequent hour. On its surface Morris’ film initially shows just a simple biographic glance into the life of an oddball kinda guy, but pretty quickly it all moves into some unexpected realm of punditry – not on the part of the filmmaker, but the folks that he interviews.

Leuchter’s background is given a quick going over: his father worked in a prison and Leucher, an electrician by trade, eventually winds up being the most consulted individual in the US on updating and humanizing the killing machines maintained by State governments. That subject could have easily filled the hour and a half of time that Mr. Death runs through, but what viewers get veers so far away from expectations, that it’s startling. So after Leucher demonstrates how his chairs, injection machines and gallows work, we find out that he was a witness supporting a Holocaust denier in Canada.

Morris follows Leucher to Auschwitz, where he illegally collects samples from the walls of the ‘supposed’ gas chambers. Chatting all the way, Leucher opines that it doesn’t even seem plausible for such killings to have transpired on the land where he stands. Of course, the fact that fifty some odd years of decay have changed the physicality of the structures doesn’t really get discussed, but whatever. As he returns to the States, Leucher takes these rock samples to a lab to be tested for the presence of cyanide residue. There isn’t any and that fact is attempted to be inserted into the trial, but is denied.

Instead extensive writings from Leucher are utilized in which he describes the process of his sample collection – as well as the uninformed, invalidated and useless test results – and explanations of the structures he was in while ‘researching’ in Germany. After the trial, where the defendant is eventually found guilty, Leucher embarks on a series of lectures. His audience, a wide swath of white power enthusiasts, neo Nazis and historical revisionists (which is an incredibly thoughtful name for folks that disregard photographic evidence and the disappearance of millions of people). Needless to say, the general public isn’t please with the simple electrician any longer.

The subject of Mr. Death is unfairly maligned by a cross section of Jews and left wingers that aren’t ever rebuffed. But what’s most interesting is Leucher’s confusion as to why all of this negative attention has been lavished on him. He can no longer find work, he’s been divorced by his wife and at one point Leucher even laments, confusedly, that he’s lost Jewish friends. The closing moments of the film find the subject carefully framing his beliefs, hedging to specifically state that he doesn’t believe there were death camps. It’s an understandable move on the part of an individual whose been abandoned by everyone in his life. But why it’s remarkable is that Morris is able to evoke from viewers some sympathy for a man who really brought a great deal of this upon himself.