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Mr. Death

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Errol Morris' Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. will surely be filed away as one of the odder documents in the history of both capital punishment and the Holocaust. Morris, whose quirky oeuvre includes Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line and A Brief History of Time, first considered Leuchter for Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, his profoundly wacky, wackily profound documentary about the crazy jobs some people have and the crazy world that makes such jobs possible. But there was something about Leuchter and his job that called for its own movie, not to mention an investigation by the FBI, the United Nations and the state of Israel. A self-taught engineer who became something of an expert on the various methods of execution used in the United States, Leuchter eventually found himself crawling through a hole in the ground at Auschwitz, where he hoped to collect brick samples that would prove the Nazis hadn't gassed anybody.

Morris first introduces us to Leuchter the execution expert--the "Florence Nightingale of Death Row," as he was called. The son of a prison guard, Leuchter had grown up under the shadow of the valley of death, and somehow that led to his advising various state prisons on how to make their executions more "dignified." And advising led to implementing, his own basement used as a workshop. A drip pan under Ol' Sparky to catch the bodily fluids, contoured chairs for lethal injection--most of the innovations came under the heading of building a better mousetrap, with Leuchter charging a "20% markup, which is more than fair." Early on in the movie, we start to notice something about this Angel of Death: He seems strangely out of touch with the enormity of what he's doing and the enormous toll it's taking on him. After cheerily announcing that he has no trouble sleeping at night, he lets it slip that he smokes six packs of cigarettes a day and drinks 40 cups of coffee (and has an ulcer). With no drip pan below him to catch the bodily fluids, the man's slowly executing himself.

Then he slips a noose around his own neck. When Ernst Zündel, a German national, is put on trial in Canada for publishing a tract called "Did Six Million Really Die?" Leuchter joins the defense team as an expert witness. That's how he winds up at Auschwitz. Morris, who all but invented the use of dramatic reenactments in 1988's The Thin Blue Line, has actual video footage of Leuchter surreptitiously chiseling away at the walls of this international shrine, and it's enough to turn your stomach. How could Leuchter be this unfeeling, this brazen, this...dumb? You don't have to know that he's combined the trip with his honeymoon (his wife's a waitress at Dunkin Donuts) to realize that Leuchter is in way over his head. And yet he can't seem to see it. Briefly feted by the neo-Nazi movement, he has his moment of glory before losing his prison business, his wife, even--irony of ironies--the gas and electricity in his house. Finally, the Nazis dump him when he's served his purpose. "He came from nowhere," revisionist historian David Irving says, "and he went back to nowhere."

But not before posing some very large questions about how to handle the whole subject of Holocaust denial. Doesn't even mentioning the idea give it more credence than it deserves? "All I can say is that I find Holocaust denial fascinating," Morris recently said when asked why he would even make such a movie. But he may have had more than mere fascination on his mind. Using various devices--he refers to his documentary style as "anti-verité"--Morris digs deep into what Hannah Arendt famously called the banality of evil. For what Leuchter finally reminds us of is your average Nazi, a technocratic Everyman who wouldn't pull the switch to murder six million people but might consent to manufacture the switch or make some suggestions for how it might be pulled more smoothly and efficiently. Morris may want us to see ourselves in this poorly dressed shlub with bad teeth and bad hair who, with the best of intentions, winds up on the slippery road to hell. From The Green Mile to the yellow star may be a much shorter distance than any of us thought.

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