Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: Mr. Death: The Rise & Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

By Mike Everleth ⋅ January 14, 2000

Two friends crapped out on me this weekend. I was invited to two different movies and both times got crapped out on. One movie I had already seen, the other I had no interest in. I would have gone to either anyway. Guess it all worked out in the end, though, because I ultimately got to see two films I really wanted to. That’s what’s important I tell myself–seein’ the movies.

The films I chose to see back-to-back were meditations on two very important topics: Sex and Death. I hoped viewing them together would help me understand life a little bit better. My life, all life, the entire notion of existence. Good films should help you think about those kinds of things, shouldn’t they?

They weren’t playing in the same theater. That would have been too easy. But they were relatively close together, about a two-block walk in the Village. I checked their runtimes on the Internet. Both movies started at about the same times and were approximately the same running time. It didn’t matter which one I chose first, but I chose Death.

However, what I found was not a film about death or life, but one about speech and ideas and the persecution of both. Let me start off with a little anecdote…

A couple of years ago, Howard Stern held a press conference on his morning radio program to announce his first broadcast on a Canadian station. It’s a tradition for Stern to hold a press conference for the benefit of whatever new market he is broadcasting in. He makes a couple of jokes about how wonderful he is and how he’s going to kick everybody’s ass, then he gets local reporters to ask questions.

I’ve heard several of these conferences and the questions are always the same: “This is a conservative city, do you really think your brand of humor is going to go over here? How do you plan on being successful here when you don’t even know the area? Have you ever said anything on the radio that you’ve ever regretted?” But at this Canadian press conference, there was an interesting new question that I had never heard asked before: “Do you believe the Holocaust never happened?”

What was the point of asking that? Had Stern made comments denying the Holocaust happened on his show before? Howard asked the reporter what he was trying to get at. The reporter just repeated the question and refused to explain himself. Howard had the choice of either answering honestly or making some smart-ass comment. He chose honesty. No, Howard did not believe that the Holocaust never happened.

The next day on Stern’s show we found out the motive for a reporter to ask such an outrageous question. In Canada, it is illegal to publicly state denial about the Holocaust. The reporter was either trying to get Howard booted off the Canadian airwaves or have the shock jock arrested by tricking him into making a joke about the Holocaust never happening. What a dick!

A couple years ago, a German-Canadian got fed up with the vilification of the German people because of what happened in WWII. Sure, the Germans did some bad things, but they weren’t the genocidal maniacs as they’ve become characterized by history. Six million Jews could not have possibly died at the hands of the Nazis was this man’s thesis.

As much as this is a moronic thing to believe, the dude is entitled to his opinion. The Canadian government believed otherwise and they took this idiot to court. Personally, I think the suppression of any speech is a dangerous thing. It is more dangerous than any inflammatory speech a person can give.

It can be proven that the Holocaust did in fact happen no matter how loudly or how many times somebody claims it didn’t. And even if somebody thinks he has proved that the Holocaust didn’t happen, as Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. thinks he did, that “proof” can be disproved. Morons should be shown the error of their ways, but they should never be silenced. Silence lends credibility and casts a specter of doubt.

Errol Morris is a unique documentary filmmaker. His ruminations on real-life events are as meticulously constructed as fictional stories. THE THIN BLUE LINE, Morris’ first major film, analyzed the shooting of a Dallas cop. After the film came out, the case was re-opened and the man who sat on death row for about ten years for the crime was eventually found innocent and set free. Because of a movie.

So, in Canada, a man is taken to court for claiming the Holocaust didn’t exist. This man’s name is Ernst Zundel. In order to defend his position, he and his lawyers hired an expert in death to prove his theories. That expert was Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Fred is a mousy little guy, drinks about 40 cups of coffee a day, smokes six packs of cigarettes and speaks in a thick Boston accent. He’s also designed several “humane” execution devices, including electric chairs, lethal injection devices and gallows. Fred speaks with authority on the subject of death. His straightforwardness in discussing the proper ways to kill people is unnerving. But we live in a society that permits that kind of thing, so obviously there should be experts on the subject. Fred talks about execution like a good plumber talking about pipes.

I won’t go into the details about how Fred “proved” the Holocaust didn’t happen, that’s the whole suspense of MR. DEATH. But some activists are interviewed for their comments about Fred’s behavior. One woman calls him a horrible anti-Semite, but I think she’s got him pegged all wrong. He’s just a man who got caught up in his own self-importance. And, as according to the full title of the movie, Fred falls pretty hard, which to me as much as I didn’t like this man didn’t seem too terribly fair. He may have had some stupid ideas, but he could build a damn fine electric chair.

After viewing the film, I couldn’t say if Fred deserved his fate or not. In a lot of ways, it’s easy to blame him for his faulty reasoning and hubris. But he’s also simply a creature of his society. Errol Morris does a good job obtaining near perfect objectivity. It’s unclear if he pities or despises or even possibly admires his subject. There’s only one tiny slip when Errol asks Fred during an interview, “Did you ever think that maybe you made a mistake?” It’s how Fred answers that question that made me pity him.