Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the "Mr. Death" of Errol Morris’ latest documentary, doesn’t seem like a particularly bad person. In fact, for someone whose area of expertise is the devising of more efficient instruments of execution, he has an unexpected – if decidedly bent – humanitarian streak. Though he doesn’t question the central premise of the death penalty, he firmly believes in the right of every condemned person to a swift and merciful demise. We are, after all, not savages.
Leuchter, intensely nerdy, claims to drink 40 cups of coffee and smoke seven packs of cigarettes a day – which, if true, means that he’s floating through life slightly more stoned than your average pothead. In any event, he has an air of detached fervor, permanently buzzed by the prospect of building a better electric chair, a friendlier method of lethal injection, a swifter and less bothersome gallows, while remaining unconcerned by what it all means.
Unlike the usual capital punishment enthusiast, Leuchter harbors neither a monumental grudge nor a hardened righteousness. He’s just a self-taught problem solver who takes pride in his ingenuity.
He’d also be just another of Morris’ interesting oddballs if it weren’t for the fact that he’s the author of The Leuchter Report, a cornerstone text in the dark fantasy world of Holocaust deniers. Having achieved some fame as an expert on death devices, Leuchter was contacted by a Canadian neo-Nazi named Ernst Zundel, who was on trial for violating one of that country’s hate crimes statutes – specifically, "publishing false history" with intent to incite racial hatred.
Zundel’s bright idea was to bundle Leuchter off to the remains of the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau in the role of a forensic expert. Whether Zundel was counting on Leuchter’s naïveté and the limitations of his homegrown know-how isn’t clear, but he couldn’t have made a better choice – after a bungled examination, Leuchter concludes that no operational gas chambers existed at either camp.
Morris tells Leuchter’s story in a highly refined version of the style he first arrived at with his third feature, The Thin Blue Line (1988), in which he moved from the talking heads exposition approach of Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1980) to a more subjective mode, one where editing, music and even lighting served the same dramatic function as one would find in a fiction film.
The Thin Blue Line is a classic "wrong man" scenario, structured like a mystery. We quickly become convinced that convicted cop killer Randall Adams is probably innocent and that David Harris, the amiable sociopath who fingered him, is probably guilty, but exactly of what and how it all interlocks is only slowly revealed. And along with each new piece of information, we’re given another re-enactment of the murder, until we have a dozen versions of the truth to choose from and finally only one that really makes sense.
Leuchter, though, is a much more cryptic figure than either Adams or Harris, and the mystery of Mr. Death is his interior life. Even after he’s published his ghastly report and is being feted at neo-Nazi literary banquets, his claim of not being an anti-Semite is believable, if only because to be one would require an emotional connection to his fellow beings, albeit a negative one, which he is clearly unable to muster.
In the end, Leuchter seems less evil than both incredibly stupid and emotionally stunted – a perfect instrument waiting to be put to bad use.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.