Required Watching: Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999)
Time for another installment of Required Watching where we knock you out of your comfortable routine of TV and movies to show you a documentary that's weird for the sole purpose of making you a better person. Knowledge is power.
Fred Leuchter, Jr. grew up in the family business, which in this case involved the Massachusetts prison system. Being a man who clearly shows up to work at 8 a.m. ready to answer a phone with Steve Buscemi levels of professionalism, he filled a niche market by creating an electric chair that became the iPhone of conductive furniture death.
This led to jobs as a consultant on other matters of execution including everything from lethal injection, to hangings, to gas chambers (OK, only those three), which by his own admission don't have anything to do with each other. This expert knowledge made him a perfect expert witness for the defense of Ernst Zundel, who was being tried as a Holocaust denier in Canada. This is where, like so many Errol Morris movies, our characters went to a foreign country to commit a crime. In this case, to get evidence that it never happened.
Accurate vs Artistic:
There’s plenty that’s staged by the subjects, especially with Leuchter, which I’m generally against. But, we’ll allow it because they’re clearly just reenacting their processes for visual flair. Mr Leuchter even seems to relish the shots they put him in, be it chiseling samples out of Auschwitz's walls, pulling the switch on an execution, standing in front of a Faraday cage, or inspecting equipment (although it becomes apparent that he’s essentially doing this movie because he’s out of money).
It should also be noted that Morris added in all the counter-evidence to Leuchter’s findings because initial screenings made him either look like he supported Leuchter or caused people to consider his case. This is understandable, as Morris has shown in movies like this and Gates Of Heaven that he wants to present characters as they show themselves with as little narrative guidance or interference as possible (relatively speaking).
Morris assumed we already knew Leuchter is a horrible person. In this case, fortunately, as steadfast as we all are in our acceptance of the Holocaust as the fact that it is, the experts later interviewed do give the documentary moments of relief when Leuchter feels like he’s starting to make too much sense.
Whenever Morris cuts to video of Leuchter operating execution equipment like a mad scientist, or any of his reenactments, just fit in as many shots as you can, since you’re going to want to anyway.
Why You Should Watch It:
If you’ve been reading this column regularly (thanks, Mom!) you’ve probably noticed a running theme in the documentaries I’ve chosen: always stay skeptical. Specifically, it’s because these are about smart people doing stupid shit. Since that sounds like an endorsement of good ol’ down-home wisdom and plainspoken truisms, I feel the need to bring up The Dunning-Kruger Effect. If you don’t know what that is, here’s a Ted-Ed video explaining it.
If that’s too much, here’s an opera. But, it’s defined as “the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence” (and some of you just read that sentence and thought, “Doesn’t look like anything to me”). What our good friend Errol Morris does with “Mr. Death” is show us a person who succumbs to that almost pathologically. He’s not stupid by any sense of the word, and everything he says and claims come from places of genuine compassion, however you feel about him on a moral scale. But, his trap in the Dunning-Kruger Effect (or, getting Dun-Ked, as the kids call it) is what many smart people fall into once experiencing initial success.
Mr. Leuchter created a revolutionary device, however you want to look at it. But, the sales gave him the acceptance. This is where you either get Dun-Ked or not, whether you choose to believe your own hype. Smart people fall into this even moreso because they can fill in and over-justify any thought or opinion with what they think they know, and if you’ve never seen it, ask the angriest Trekkies you know how time travel works, or a gun-owner about the law. You either keep operating like you’re hot shit, or you stop to remember there’s more to learn. You become the villain in every story that stopped their training and goes to the dark side.
In this case, like so many socially awkward people who think they’ve learned enough, Leuchter went with the Nazis. Who else can you think of that would ever do such a thing (which, yes, we know who you’re thinking of, if not probably them). This is how folks like Jordan Peterson, Ann Coulter, and Fox News operate, and why Bill Maher, David Mamet, Frank Miller, and Gallagher all suck now. This is how you get conspiracy theories, and how they spread. Zundel says it best in the movie when he quotes Leuchter, saying, “It wasn’t what I found, it was what I didn’t find,” and following it with, “It never occurred to me that a man could be convinced by something that is not there.” It’s an opinion that should never apply to anyone.