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Friday, March 31, 2000

As for director, soulful 'Death' becomes him

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

Posted on Fri, Mar 31, 2000 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 4.50

Acclaimed as a documentarian, Errol Morris ("The Thin Blue Line," "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control") might more adequately be termed a "film scientist." He approaches his subjects with the dispassionate, curious eye of a lab researcher, watching them swim and squirm across the petri dish that is his camera.

In Fred A. Leuchter Jr. -- the "Mr. Death" of his latest experiment's title -- he's finally found an object of study who fully deserves to be placed under a microscope.

A Massachusetts resident and an uncertified engineer, Leuchter has made it his life's work to reform the American system of capital punishment. The incessant tinkerer puts his mechanical talents to work in the creation of electric chairs, gas chambers and lethal-injection machines that dispatch the doomed in a quicker, more humane manner.

That seeming oxymoron -- "humane execution" -- is Leuchter's focus for the first portion of the film, and he actually makes a certain amount of morbid sense. Doesn't the prospect of a condemned man's head catching on fire due to inferior technology (as happened here in Florida) move harsh justice over into the realm of torture? (For even more timely debate, see Leuchter's assertion that the lethal-injection punishment is cruder and more cruel than the chair.)

We've barely come to terms with Leuchter's predilection when a revisionist historian enlists his aid in "proving" that the Nazi gas chambers were a work of fiction. Leuchter hops a plane to Europe, does some illegal digging at Auschwitz and Birkenau, then goes public with his findings: There is no residue of poison gas on the camp grounds. Therefore, the mass murder never took place.

When Morris brings in a troupe of experts to debunk Leuchter's methods and qualifications, the biographical focus is lost. But we can't blame the filmmaker for deviating from his chosen path when the alternative is to let a dangerous, crackpot theory go unchallenged.

The controversy is illustrated with Morris' customary visual wizardry. Scenes are shot in color and in black and white, in high resolution and low; the stylistic stew is arresting from the first frame to the last. There's no better special effect, however, than Leuchter himself, a small, vaguely rodentlike man who stares out at us through glasses that are as thick and unwieldy as the lens of Morris' Interrotron camera apparatus. Occasionally, Leuchter breaks into a self-satisfied grin, offering a flash of teeth that have grown rotten from his 40-cups-per-day coffee habit.

Watching him defend the indefensible affords a better understanding of genocidal psychosis than any six Holocaust documentaries. Not outwardly an anti-Semite, Leuchter nonetheless shares the Reich's devotion to the ideas of authority and efficiency. Sanity comes in a distant third.

"Mr. Death" exists within the perfect Morris milieu: an abyss of detachment. But this time, the black hole in the director's methodology is dwarfed by the one in the soul of his subject. That difference alone makes this new outing a death trip worth taking.


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