Shot through with mordant humor, Errol Morris' documentary scrutinizes the bizarre career of an execution specialist whose vanity turns him into a pariah. Made with the filmmaker's customary off-center style, "Mr. Death" is nonetheless a bit distended for its highly particular subject matter, becoming repetitive and draggy in its second half.

Shot through with mordant humor but dominated by the grimly ironic spectacle of a man hoisting himself by his own petard, Errol Morris’ documentary scrutinizes the bizarre career of an execution specialist whose scientific vanity turns him into a pariah. Made with the filmmaker’s customary off-center style and probing intelligence, “Mr. Death” is nonetheless a bit distended for its highly particular subject matter, becoming repetitive and draggy in its second half; material’s ideal length would fall somewhere between present feature status and a vignette in Morris’ last effort, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.” As such, theatrical prospects on the specialized circuit are probably lower than the director’s norm, although TV and video future is bright.

With his customary poker-faced glee, Morris ushers the viewer into the weird world of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., a bespectacled egghead with a thick New England accent who matter-of-factly recounts how he was drawn into the business of designing electric chairs and, later, a lethal injection system.

At once provoking audience titters with his straight-faced history of electrocution in the U.S. and the deficiencies he found in various states’ antiquated equipment, the professionally proud techno-nerd speaks of his privileged childhood access to prisons due to his father’s work there, and of how his distress over the condition of Tennessee’s electric chair won him his first contract to build a new one.

Describing himself as pro-capital punishment but anti-capital torture, Leuchter demonstrates how death machines work while also describing — with more detail than some people will likely want to know — precisely how a massive dose of electricity kills a person, and the gruesome effects defective equipment can produce. Through this initial section, film is informative in an almost giddily humorous manner; hipster audiences will readily absorb the arcania Leuchter spews out while smirking at his utter lack of irony and perspective on what he does.

Tone turns darker a half-hour in with the entrance of Ernst Zundel, a neo-Nazi under prosecution in Canada for his strenuous Holocaust-denial campaign. When Zundel approaches Leuchter to do forensic tests on the walls of concentration camps in an attempt to demonstrate that poison gas was never used there, Leuchter obliges by taking his new wife on a honeymoon to the Auschwitz Hotel.

At the “alleged gas chamber” nearby, Leuchter is seen, in videos made at the time, in the late ’80s, surreptitiously chipping away at the interior walls and taking measurements for cyanide gas, residual deposits of which would theoretically prove what went on in what one expert plausibly calls “the absolute center of human atrocity” on the world map of human suffering.

Leuchter returns, however, to testify that, based on his findings, no gas was used in the camps. His methodology immediately and conclusively struck down by scientists and historians, Leuchter comes under heavy attack by Jewish groups in the wake of Zundel’s conviction, his wife divorces him and his life is in shambles. At a point where he might have salvaged his career, if not his reputation, by apologizing, Leuchter instead takes up with right-wing groups that embrace his notorious Leuchter Report on the camps, thereby continuing to play into the hands of the Holocaust-denial crowd. “I guess I’m a reluctant revisionist,” the engineer confesses at the end, while still steadfastly standing by his “scientific” findings.

Morris juices up this strange, sad tale with all the visual inventiveness he can muster, alternating film and source-video formats and colors from shot to shot, cutting in unexpected and sometimes poetic ways and combing it through with Caleb Sampson’s eclectic but predominantly mournful score. All the same, things do go a bit slack in the home stretch, as Morris, perhaps out of some deep-rooted moral outrage, can’t prevent himself from repeating the same points several times, or from showing his ultimately pathetic subject relentlessly hacking away at the heavy walls of the gas chambers as if some palpable truth lay in the crumbling cement.

Ultimately, Leuchter comes across not as a fundamentally bad man, just a hopelessly deluded one, a technician overly impressed with his own expertise and infallibility, a small figure blindly sucked into the vortex of consummate evil decades after the fact.

World preemed in its final version at Toronto, film was screened at Sundance in a 35mm blowup of a longer cut taken off the Avid.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred a. Leuchter, Jr.

Production

A Lions Gate Films release of an Independent Film Channel presentation, in association with Channel 4, of a Fourth Floor/Scout production. (International sales: Sloss Special Projects, New York.) Produced by Michael Williams, David Collins, Dorothy Aufiero. Executive producers, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan , John Sloss. Directed by Errol Morris.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Peter Donohue; editor, Karen Schmeer; music, Caleb Sampson; production designer, Ted Bafaloukos; sound (Dolby), Steve Bores; additional camera, Robert Richardson. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 14, 1999. Running time: 90 MIN.
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