I’ve gone over and over through my vocabulary (and my thesaurus) trying to find just the right qualifying word to accurately describe the feeling of what Fred Leuchter Jr. does for a living. He designs implements of execution: electric chairs, lethal injection machines etc. I find myself falling pathetically on the word “ghoulish.”
The documentary Mr. Death gives consideration to something I never really thought about. When a person goes to be executed by the state, where does the execution machine come from? I admit that I never imagined anyone sitting over a drafting table working out the blueprints for such a device.
Yet, having heard Fred Leuchter Jr. (pronounced “Look-Ter”) describe his job, I can say that if anyone must to build such a device, it might as well be him. He seems to know what he’s talking about. His name is sort of legendary (I would guess so . . . do you know of another person who does this?) When the State of New Jersey contacted him to be a consultant on the proposal of the design of a lethal injection machine, he agreed but admitted that he didn’t have the first idea how to design one. The doctor’s presentation to the deputy commissioner of the prison wasn’t going well, until the doctor mentioned that Leuchter designed the cap for the prison’s electric chair. The commissioner’s eyes lit up and he was sold on the idea without another word. Most of us could only wish to have a reputation that solid.
Leuchter looks a little peculiar but you wouldn’t expect someone who holds such a position to look anything but out of place. He’s short, with a round face, big glasses and a thick New England accent. He resembles a very dowdy cousin of Elton John. Even if you have no objection to his work, you have to admit that there is an heir about him that wouldn’t make you eager to invite him to tea. He is a man, however, that you want to listen to. He has odd stories and anecdotes that either intrigue or repulse depending on your personal taste. I can only speculate that his circle of close friends is a bit small, especially when you consider that one of his bits of knowledge involves the ins and outs of how dangerous it is to be in the death chamber electrocuting someone with urine on the floor from the previous execution. With that nugget of information and his habit of drinking 40 cups of coffee a day and smoking 6 packs of cigarettes, I would imagine that he isn’t exactly a fun date. Based on that addictions, I wasn’t too surprised to learn that he eventually married a waitress.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. not only examines Leuchter’s work, but also the turning point that cost him his job and his reputation. That came with his association with Ernst Zundel, a neo-Nazi who went on trial for public slander after he published a report stating that the holocaust was a myth. In 1988, the two traveled to Auschwitz to collect concrete samples from the remains of the gas chamber to prove that no traces of Zychlon B (the lethal gas that was used to kill Jews in the gas chambers) was present. Those samples were going to be used in Zundel’s case to prove that he was right about his claims. The science was flawed and the jury was biased. What happened to Leuchter’s reputation was a full-frontal assault on very the idea of free speech. His views and his mere association in the Zundel case cost him everything. He became a pariah, a lamb to the slaughter just for speaking his newly acquired views against the holocaust. Whether he meant it or was just saying it to impress some new friends hardly matters. The fact that he said them was damning enough.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr comes from one of the most creative minds to ever to work in the arena of documentaries. Erroll Morris never plays it safe. His films are never about ordinary people doing ordinary things. He loves the circus freaks among us, people who do and are obsessed with odd things. He made: Gates of Heaven, about the owners of a pet cemetery in Southern California; Vernon, Florida about various weirdos in the title town including a man who lives, breaths, eats and sleeps and dreams turkey hunting; The Thin Blue Line a film about a murder in a small town that was so persuasive that it sparked a reopening of the case; A Brief History of Time about the life and theories of Stephen Hawking who discusses his understanding of the vastness of the universe while suffering from a condition that renders him almost completely unable to move.
Here again, Morris chooses someone out of the ordinary. Fred Leuchter Jr. is an odd little man with a ghoulish job, who takes up with the wrong side of the holocaust and doesn’t resend it in order to save his reputation. Why? What happens to Leuchter’s reputation once he takes the side of the Neo-Nazis is, I think, criminal. He chose the wrong friends, said the wrong things and made people believe what he was saying simply by saying it. Was he a Neo-Nazi? Who knows? Who cares? Leuchter is a product of our times, times in which verbal intolerance is put on the shelf with mass murder, when people are so outraged by the act of being offended that they commit a character assassination of a man just for publicly stating his opinion. What happened to him was a pitiful revelation that words and kill just has inhumanely as a botched electric chair.