Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is a 1999 documentary film
Documentary film
Documentary films constitute a broad category of nonfictional motion pictures intended to document some aspect of reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction or maintaining a historical record...

 by Errol Morris
Errol Morris
Errol Mark Morris is an American director. In 2003, The Guardian put him seventh in its list of the world's 40 best directors. Also in 2003, his film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.-Early life and...

 about execution technician Fred A. Leuchter
Fred A. Leuchter
Frederick A. Leuchter, Jr. is an American Federal Court qualified expert in execution technology and author of forensic Holocaust denial material. He claims to have improved the design of instruments for capital punishment and had execution equipment contracts with several states...



Using film made at American prison
A prison is a place in which people are physically confined and, usually, deprived of a range of personal freedoms. Imprisonment or incarceration is a legal penalty that may be imposed by the state for the commission of a crime...

s, Leuchter talked about his upbringing where his father was a corrections officer. Through his family associations, young Leuchter claimed he was able to witness an execution performed in an electric chair
Electric chair
Execution by electrocution, usually performed using an electric chair, is an execution method originating in the United States in which the condemned person is strapped to a specially built wooden chair and electrocuted through electrodes placed on the body...

. Leuchter's impressions of the event was that the electric chairs used by American prisons were unsafe and often ineffective. The event led him to design modifications to the device that were adopted by many American states.

Leuchter claimed he was invited to other American prisons to inspect and design modifications to their electric chairs. Though not possessing any formal training or education in the matter Leuchter claims he was told that the individuals who did possess formal and accepted qualifications would not provide advice due to their opinions on the death penalty, fear of reprisals or that they were squeamish about the subject.

Leuchter's career continued with other state prisons seeking his advice on execution facilities other than electrocution, such as gas chamber
Gas chamber
A gas chamber is an apparatus for killing humans or animals with gas, consisting of a sealed chamber into which a poisonous or asphyxiant gas is introduced. The most commonly used poisonous agent is hydrogen cyanide; carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide have also been used...

s and lethal injection
Lethal injection
Lethal injection is the practice of injecting a person with a fatal dose of drugs for the express purpose of causing the immediate death of the subject. The main application for this procedure is capital punishment, but the term may also be applied in a broad sense to euthanasia and suicide...

. Though initially professing his ignorance of other methods of execution, the authorities seeking his advice reminded him that others with more qualifications refused to help. Leuchter claimed to have taught himself on these other methods of execution and provided advice that was used by the authorities to improve safety and efficiency.

His fall began when Leuchter claimed to have been sought as a witness for the defence of Ernst Zündel
Ernst Zündel
Ernst Christof Friedrich Zündel is a German Holocaust denier and pamphleteer who was jailed several times in Canada for publishing literature which "is likely to incite hatred against an identifiable group" and for being a threat to national security, in the United States for overstaying his visa,...

 on trial in Canada for publishing and sending material denying the Holocaust overseas. Leuchter was asked by the defence to travel to Poland to visit Auschwitz to investigate whether there had been operating gas chambers for executions at the camp.

At his first examination Leuchter felt that using poison gas in a building with the internal and external design of the buildings currently on display in the site would have caused the death of everyone in the area outside the buildings as well as inside. The film shows videotape footage taken in Poland of Leuchter taking samples of bricks in the buildings to take back to the United States forensic science crime lab
Crime Lab
A crime laboratory - often shortened to crime lab - is a scientific laboratory, using primarily forensic science for the purpose of examining evidence from criminal cases.- Lab personnel :A typical crime lab has two sets of personnel:...

s to determine whether there was evidence of poison gas in the material. As per the usual procedure the samples were not identified where they came from. Leuchter claimed the laboratories claimed there was not any trace of any poison gas at any time.

As publicity ensued, Leuchter lost his positions as consultants to American prisons.


When Morris originally screened an early version of the film for a Harvard film class, he found that the students reacted by either believing Leuchter's side of the story or by condemning the film as a piece of Holocaust denial
Holocaust denial
Holocaust denial is the act of denying the genocide of Jews in World War II, usually referred to as the Holocaust. The key claims of Holocaust denial are: the German Nazi government had no official policy or intention of exterminating Jews, Nazi authorities did not use extermination camps and gas...

. Morris had no such intention, however, as Morris had considered it obvious that Leuchter was wrong, and that the main idea of the film was intended to be the exploration of Leuchter as a being almost completely lacking in self-knowledge:
"The Holocaust has been used in movies as a way of increasing drama in a sense that the triumph of the human spirit never looked so triumphant against the horrors. This movie attempts to do something very different. It's to try to enter the mindset of denial. You are asked to reflect on the whole idea of denial in general, not as some postwar phenomenon but as something that was inherent in the enterprise itself. You would think it would be the easiest thing in the world to identify this behavior as wrong, horrific, depraved. Those people did these things. To me, the question is how. With Mr. Death, it’s about finding out why Fred Leuchter holds these views."

Thus, the "fall" of Leuchter's life is portrayed not as a result of any particular ill feelings toward the Jewish people or passionate support for revisionist history, but rather as an absurd man bumbling into making politically incorrect
Political correctness
Political correctness is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts,...

 statements. Errol Morris re-edited the film to include additional interviews with people who condemn Leuchter with varying intensity. Morris said this last part should have been unnecessary, since, to him, Leuchter was so obviously misguided in much of what he says in the film.

In the course of the film Leuchter goes so far as to state frankly that he could not believe in the gas chambers because he could not himself conceive of their mechanics, although he makes it plainly evident that he knows very little of the history in which these arose. He suggests a series of options (hanging, shooting, and explosives), most of which the Nazis had in fact attempted (shootings and explosives) before determining that direct, ongoing, and extensive SS involvement would not be sufficient to achieve the genocidal objectives they set for themselves after earlier forays into mass murder, such as Einsatzgruppen
Einsatzgruppen were SS paramilitary death squads that were responsible for mass killings, typically by shooting, of Jews in particular, but also significant numbers of other population groups and political categories...

 and Babi Yar
Babi Yar
Babi Yar is a ravine in the Ukrainian capital Kiev and a site of a series of massacres carried out by the Nazis during their campaign against the Soviet Union. The most notorious and the best documented of these massacres took place on September 29–30, 1941, wherein 33,771 Jews were killed in a...

. Leuchter similarly appears unaware of the T-4 Euthanasia Program and the history or science behind small-scale gassings directed by Hitler's
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

 Reich Chancellery and then the SS. In a rather direct sense, the film offers that the Holocaust is fundamentally inconceivable, if not impossible, in Leuchter's mind.

Morris examines but pursues neither Leuchter's opposition, if not aversion, to gas as a means of execution (Leuchter states his belief that it is an overly hazardous means of execution in terms of other participants) nor his imputed lack of practical experience with it.
His general concern with the safety of gassing methods appear to be a cause of his disbelief in the viability of the gas chambers, the venting process for which he believed would pose a serious threat to their operators. His critics reply:
Nonsense; it is all a question of concentration. Once the gas is released into the atmosphere, its concentration decreases and it is no longer dangerous. Also, HCN dissipates quickly. The execution gas chambers in US prisons are also ventilated directly into the atmosphere. Furthermore, if this argument would hold for the extermination chambers, it would hold for the delousing chambers as well, and one would have to conclude that no delousing chambers existed either.

Robert Jan van Pelt
Robert Jan van Pelt
Robert Jan van Pelt is an author, architectural historian, professor at the University of Waterloo and University of Toronto in Ontario and a Holocaust scholar. One of the world's leading experts on Auschwitz, he regularly speaks on Holocaust related topics, through which he has come to address...

, who appears in Mr. Death to specify some of Leuchter's scholarly failures (e.g. not consulting the large documentation archive available at Auschwitz), served as the primary expert witness against David Irving
David Irving
David John Cawdell Irving is an English writer,best known for his denial of the Holocaust, who specialises in the military and political history of World War II, with a focus on Nazi Germany...

 in his libel trial
Irving v Penguin Books and Lipstadt
David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt is a case in English law, relating to Holocaust denial. It ruled that the claim that such denial is a deliberate distortion of evidence is substantially true, and therefore not libellous....

, relating to the court the strength of the physical and documentary evidence supporting the use of that camp for gassing. That testimony was printed as The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial (ISBN 0-253-34016-0).Van Pelt is also the co-author, with Deborah Dwork, of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present. (New York: Norton, 1990)

Critical reception

Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert
Roger Joseph Ebert is an American film critic and screenwriter. He is the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.Ebert is known for his film review column and for the television programs Sneak Previews, At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and Siskel and Ebert and The...

 said the movie was great, strange and provocative, and his co-host Lisa Schwarzbaum
Lisa Schwarzbaum
Lisa Schwarzbaum is an American film critic. She joined Entertainment Weekly as film critic in the 1990s. She has been featured on CNN, co-host on Siskel & Ebert At the Movies as well as a cultural, theater and television reviewer....

 called it "amazing." The Detroit News wrote the movie "unmasks the friendly face of evil."

External links

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