Films

Vanity and evil

Errol Morris mercilessly exposes ‘Mr. Death’

Andrew Clark February 14 2000
Films

Vanity and evil

Errol Morris mercilessly exposes ‘Mr. Death’

Andrew Clark February 14 2000

Vanity and evil

Films

Errol Morris mercilessly exposes ‘Mr. Death’

He wanted to become what he called the “Florence Nightingale of Death Row,” a man whose sacred mission was to design and construct user-friendly (to both executioner and condemned prisoner) gas chambers, electric chairs, lethal-injection systems and gallows. But Fred A. Feuchter Jr., an engineer from Malden,

Mass., traded this dream for the opportunity to become a stooge for Holocaust deniers around the world. Mr.

Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. charts Feuchter’s ignoble trajectory. Directed by American documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, the movie is a brilliant meditation on the relationship between vanity and evil.

The bizarre story of the American-born Feuchter, now 56, begins in the 1980s, when he fixed his first murder device: Tennessee’s electric chair. He soon became a renowned, albeit self-taught, death expert. In 1988, Feuchter married Carol, a Dunkin’ Donuts waitress, and prepared for a prosperous life. That same year, however, destiny called in the form of Ernst Zundel. The Toronto-based neo-Nazi had been charged with spreading false news (a criminal offence in Canada) for a pamphlet called “Did Six Million Really Die?” and Zundel asked Feuchter to act as an expert witness. He flew the American to Poland. There, Leuchter conducted illegal tests on the ruins of concentrations camps including Auschwitz. He returned with evidence he claims proves the Nazis did

not use gas chambers and that the Holocaust never happened. Leuchter testified for Zundel, who was nevertheless convicted in 1988 (the Supreme Court of Canada stmck down the conviction in 1992). Leuchter published his findings in “The Leuchter Report,” which is now a cornerstone of the Holocaust denial movement.

In the hands of a less skilled director, Leuchters story could easily become a crude story of good and evil. But Morris, who directed such acclaimed movies as 1988’s The Thin Blue Line (about an innocent man on death row) and 1997 s Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (about four risk-takers), adopts a more complex and ultimately rewarding approach. Using interview and archival footage, he shows how Leuchter—who was not a Holocaust denier before signing on with Zundel—became smitten with the status he won among neo-Nazis. Leuchter was so flattered by being considered an “expert” that he ignored where the accolades were coming from. “The question I want to ask,” Morris told Macleans in an interview, “is if the Holocaust has something

Films

to teach us, is it about anti-Semitism per se or does it teach us something deeper, that people can believe something that is so deeply wrong. Is the human mind so plastic that people can believe anything?”

The footage of Leuchters illegal excavations—filmed by a cameraman hired by Zundel—provokes both humour and outrage. Leuchter is every inch the buffoon. Looking like a gnome in his hooded jacket and armed with a pick and a handful of plastic sandwich bags, he happily hacks away at the walls of gas chambers and ovens. He is a case study in stupidity, affecting television-inspired detective jargon, at one point proclaiming: “I am making my ascent,” before crawling out of a hole. At the same time, the viewer is incensed by his shameful transgressions. Every whack of Leuchters pick is a desecration.

Leuchters “deal with the devil,” as a Holocaust historian interviewed by Morris calls it, comes with a price. After his alignment with the neoNazis, prison wardens and state governors back in the United States, who once bought his execution devices, no longer want to do business with him. Protesters rail against him. He loses his wife, his career and his status. Leuchter winds up delivering speeches on the neo-Nazi rubber-chicken circuit. Then, it appears, even the hatemongers tire of him. He winds up hiding from creditors. Only one thing remains constant—Leuchters unshakable belief that he is right. It’s here that Mr. Death delivers its most telling statement on the Holocaust: the will to not know may be a sin of passivity, but it can be the most lethal sin of all. “It would be nice if we could just simply identify evil, as if evil always wore some kind of evil face,” Morris says. “We could point and say, ‘Those are the lagos, those are the Lady Macbeths, those are the Richard Ills, let’s go get them.’ But the world doesn’t quite work that way.”

Andrew Clark

Brian D. Johnson