Reviewed by: Matthew Prins
Starring: Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., David Irving, James Roth, Shelly Shapiro, Suzanne Tabasky, Robert Jan Van Pelt, Ernest Zündel | Director: Errol Morris | Producers: Dorothy Aufiero, David Collins, Michael Williams | Released by: Lions Gate Films
For the feature film connoisseur looking to bridge out into watching documentaries, there isn’t a better place to start than Errol Morris' films. Morris is easily the most cinematic (read: flashy) of the prominent documentarians working today; while most non-fiction films are made using the “point, shoot, edit” method, Morris adds undocumentaryesque visuals: different film stocks, recreations of events, film clips from other movies. This tendency toward feature-film cinema is true in his storytelling as well: he is often as concerned with the eccentricities of the characters than the actual events the documentary is purportedly portraying.
“Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.” is a typical Morris documentary on both counts, as it is both visually unique and focused on Leuchter’s quirkiness as much as his rise and fall. Leuchter’s rise and fall is a quirky story itself: Leuchter started out as an expert in the art of making executions “more humane,” starting with an electric chair in Missouri and working his way through gas chambers, lethal injection and hanging. Because of his skill in the field of death, a group of Holocaust revisionists asked Leuchter to find out if “alleged” gas chambers in Auschwitz were actually used for that purpose; because of his hubris and his belief that he was an expert on all things related to executions, he agreed. Using dubious methods (both ethically and scientifically), he came to the belief that the gas chambers in Auschwitz could not have been used as such; ergo, no Holocaust.
Leuchter comes off relatively sympathetically in “Mr. Death” because his fall after becoming a Holocaust revisionist was so devastating. He lost his career, his respect from peers, and his wife after his trip to Auschwitz. Morris goes to great pains to show that the Holocaust did exist—too blatantly, I would argue—but he never loses sight of the pain that Leuchter goes through because of his vanity. Morris only asks Leuchter only one question that can be heard on camera: “Do you ever think you could be wrong?” Leuchter, unsurprisingly, answers no.
Hubris is a sin not often discussed in media—sexual promiscuity and violence are more fashionable—but Morris shows how easily arrogance can get in the way of a man’s relationship with the world. What might interest Christians most about “Mr. Death” and Morris' other documentaries is his never-ending focus on the existential questions surrounding life and death. This focus goes back to “Gates of Heaven”, his 1978 documentary about the transplantation of a pet cemetery, where he shows a woman who just buried her dog saying, “There’s your dog. Your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”
In “Mr. Death”, Morris shows that Leuchter views death analytical: a clinical problem to be solved by creating comfort for the dying and systems to help clean up the mess. Leuchter’s worldview is certainly at odds with the Christian faith, but he isn’t being presented as a man whose views should be followed.
If Christian Spotlight had epileptic ratings for films, “Mr. Death” would get a “1” without question; the open credits contain two minutes of bright pulsing lights that gave me a temporary headache and forced my wife, who has migraines, to cover her eyes. More difficult is putting a Christian rating on “Mr. Death”, largely because the usual vices that offend Christians—sex, violence and language—are virtually absent from the frames. Instead, Morris shows Leuchter giving descriptions of what happens to people killed by varied state-approved methods, a silent film of an elephant being electrocuted, and a reenactment of a man receiving a lethal injection up to the point where the drug is put into the man’s system.
I’m reluctant to call any of these portrayals un-Christian considering the way they were shown in the film, but those who have problems with the grotesque may have a problem with the first half of “Mr. Death”. Those who don’t will have a better understanding why those who consider themselves among the greatest of these often find themselves among the least of these.