Errol Morris has painted a portrait of the banality of evil.

MR. DEATH: THERISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER, JR.

A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.


The only conceivable temptation to spend an evening with Mr. Death would derive from having seen Errol Morris's rewarding earlier work, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. In that interesting effort, Mr. Morris looked carefully into the hearts and minds of a topiary gardener, an expert on mole rats, a robot scientist, and a lion tamer. These men were driven by passion, or, more precisely, obsession, to understand the essence of their subjects. Mr. Morris used that documentary to study control: who has it, how it is won.

In Mr. Death, Mr. Morris is still studying control. His new subject is an unpleasant, ultimately chilling worm of a man named Fred A. Leuchter Jr. With the kind of passion that fascinates Mr. Morris, Fred Leuchter designs, develops, and tests new ways of killing criminals by lethal injection and electric chair. He wants to invent a quick, more humane killing method. He loves his work.

We learn from his ramblings that the first jolt destroys the central nervous system, the second brings death. Fred is absorbed in these details of his trade. They excite him. He is an execution consultant and expert. He lives at home with his mother and belongs to a gun club. He chain-smokes and drinks 40 cups of coffee each day.

After tweaking the technology of death during the '60s and '70s, Fred Leuchter is rewarded with a contract from a group seeking to prove that the Holocaust never happened. He becomes an expert witness--the whore who can be paid to prove anything--in the Canadian trial of a neo-Nazi.

Needing to go to the source, he takes his new wife to Auschwitz on their honeymoon. Under the eye of the documentary film cameras, Fred busies himself with detailed drawings of gas chambers while his wife does crossword puzzles in the bitter cold of the car. After taking a few illegal measurements and scrapings, Fred announces that people were not gassed in these chambers. We watch in disgust as Fred becomes a minor hit on the European neo-Nazi lecture circuit. He travels through pockets of lunacy. The Leuchter report is still used by right-wing fringe groups to deny the Holocaust.

Fred Leuchter's looks and expressions seem born of a lifetime of his chosen work on death. He isn't a normal guy in a spooky profession. He's a spooky guy in a spooky profession who has assumed all the coloration and weirdness of the mindset that denies history, and doesn't know he's wrong. Sitting proudly in his electric chair in the final scenes, smiling the world's smarmiest smile, he's a contemporary version of the men in history's catalogue who have found their life's passion in refining the craft of how to kill human beings. Errol Morris has painted a portrait of the banality of evil.


Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 491
Studio : Lions Gate Films
Rating : PG-13
Running time : 1h31m


Copyright (c) Illusion

Return to Ellis Home Page