Love and Death

In Mr. Death, documentarian Errol Morris trains his beloved Interrotron on execution technologist-turned-Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter

In the early scenes of Mr. Death, Leuchter comes across as little more than an amiable small-fry eccentric, albeit one with what Morris calls "an unwholesome obsession with executions." Midway through the film, however, Leuchter's story turns a dangerous corner. In 1988 Ernst Zundel, a German neo-Nazi and publisher of tracts (including "The Hitler We Loved, and Why" and "Did Six Million Really Die?"), was on trial in Canada on charges of publishing materials deemed deliberately false, and he commissioned Leuchter to travel to Auschwitz to take samples from the crematoria to be tested for the presence of cyanide. Zundel, determined that "we will not go down in history as being a nation of genocidal maniacs," intended to prove that the Holocaust never happened, and Leuchter, he says, "was our only hope."

 

Clearly, poor Fred Leuchter was a man who yearned to be someone's only hope, and he dutifully set off for Poland on the field trip of his life, convinced that he was "the only expert in the world" who could determine what had really happened at Auschwitz. Accompanied by a draftsman, a translator (Leuchter spoke no German), a cinematographer, and his wife (who spent much of the trip--her honeymoon, in essence--sitting in the car reading mystery novels and working crossword puzzles), Leuchter hiked around in Auschwitz and Birkenau, investigating the crematoria and illegally chiseling brick and mortar samples from the walls and floor to be smuggled back to the United States and tested for traces of poison gas. The footage of Leuchter marching around in Auschwitz with his hammer and chisel, bundled up like a Boy Scout, is painful and appalling.

"Leuchter is a victim of the myth of Sherlock Holmes," Auschwitz historian Robert Jan Van Pelt observes at one point--but Leuchter's point of reference seemingly owes more to the Hardy Boys or Encyclopedia Brown; he appears positively giddy with the adventure, intoxicated by his imagined expertise. "I got a beautiful piece of roof," he says at one point, grinning into the camera and shoving samples into plastic bags. It is often difficult to tell if what we're seeing is the footage of Leuchter's original trip to Poland, or the product of Morris's own later trip, when the director staged reenactments at the death camps using actors, including a man wearing the very clothing that Leuchter--tragically complicit and gullible--had worn and subsequently loaned to the film crew. Morris is on slippery ground here; if Leuchter's trip represented desecration, what are we to think of the filmmaker's labored re-creations, his own bizarre field trip to Auschwitz?

Upon Leuchter's return from Auschwitz, his samples were submitted for chemical analysis to the Alpha Analytic Laboratories, and the results, Leuchter would claim, showed no significant traces of cyanide, thus "proving" that poison gas was not used at Auschwitz. These results--coupled with Leuchter's "best engineering opinion," based on the examination of the ruins, that the crematoria could not have been used as gas chambers--were compiled in "The Leuchter Report," a document that has become a cornerstone of the Holocaust denial movement. There are now reportedly millions of copies of the report in print, translated into dozens of languages, and widely disseminated as gospel on the Internet.

Never mind that James Roth, the man who did the analysis at Alpha Analytic (ignorant of the origins of the samples or the purpose of the tests), avers in Mr. Death that the correct tests were not performed and "the results have no meaning." Never mind that Leuchter didn't bother to visit the archives at Auschwitz, where he could have examined documents, blueprints, designs, and Nazi correspondence, all related to the crematoria's uses as a gas chamber. Never mind the records of history or the memories of survivors--Fred Leuchter concluded that the Holocaust never happened, and he was instantly embraced as a hero by the Holocaust denial movement. "Why didn't they just shoot them?" Leuchter wonders. "Why didn't they just blow them up? It just doesn't make sense."

Of course, even the most pathetic tragic heroes must pay for their hubris in the end, and Fred Leuchter certainly pays. It's interesting that Morris's film feels like a funeral for a fool, and yet Mr. Death is still out there somewhere. He lost a gallows contract initially, then the wardens stopped calling altogether. His business failed, he lost his house, and his marriage fell apart. He eventually resorted to trying to sell half a lethal injection machine--one last contract that went bust--through a classified ad. In the end, he is even reduced to being evicted from motel rooms, and Morris shows him, finally, walking alone along a highway. "It's pretty tough when you're out in the middle of nowhere by yourself," he says.

It seems clear that Morris would like us to feel some level of empathy for Fred Leuchter, to see something of our own propensity for self-deception in his folly--but it's a stretch. He's a fascinating character, yet probably not as complicated as Morris might wish us to believe. "Holocaust denial is a story about vanity," Robert Jan Van Pelt says. "It is a way to get in the limelight, to be noticed--to be someone--maybe to be loved." That said, it's unlikely that anybody or anything ever loved Fred Leuchter in quite the way, or quite as much, as he was loved by Errol Morris's Interrotron.

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