Calling the subject matter of Errol Morris' latest documentary, Mr. Death, "unpleasant" is like referring to the lavatory on a tuna boat as "lightly scented." The director who brought us the zany Americana of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and the lukewarm Stephen Hawking snoozer, A Brief History of Time, as well as scads of commercials for jeans, beer and convenience stores, surpasses his previous efforts this time out in terms of getting our attention. Whether he holds it depends not on his technique (he's slick, mostly in the good sense), but on one's stomach: as in, how much morbidity can you swallow?
Morris pulls no punches here, giving us a squirmingly intimate portrait of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., a man whose peculiar and unusual specialty as an engineer of execution systems gave rise to his passion to become the Florence Nightingale of death row. In states still supporting capital punishment, Leuchter established a reputation as a designer of electric chairs, lethal-injection machines, gallows and even gas chambers. A cheerful proponent of the death penalty, he designed drip pans to catch a corpse's bodily fluids and argued for contour chairs for lethal-injection executees to provide more comfort than gurneys. In response to an obvious question, he explains that, yes, he sleeps very well at night, "with the comforting thought that those persons being executed with my equipment have a better chance of having a painless, more humane and dignified execution."
How thoughtful. In this prickly study, Morris mainly lets his subject speak for himself, and Leuchter is only too happy to oblige. The man is nerdy and whiny in tone (reminding me somewhat of a science teacher I once had who lived with his mother and refused to ride bicycles because their seats felt "like shoehorns"), but he's also quite cogent, even congenial. What's eerie is his utterly comfortable -- though obviously obsessive -- association with killing machines. "The human body is not easy to destroy," he explains before launching into the vivid details of all the best ways to accomplish that heinous goal. While recounting the story of reconstructing Tennessee's tiny old electric chair, which was constructed from the wood of the state's original gallows, the man tells us he coated his revamped chair with the same paint used on the space shuttle, and he beams with pride. Critical assessment of Leuchter requires no character assassination, because the barn is standing in plain sight and, with his subject's full cooperation, Morris easily shoots it full of holes.
It gets weirder. Try "Honeymoon at Auschwitz." Literally. Once we get in gear with Leuchter the execution specialist, the stage is set for the movie's second half, wherein we get to know Leuchter the political patsy. The bridge seems to be coffee, which Leuchter consumes -- along with six packs of cigarettes -- to the tune of 40 cups a day. "I was a good tipper; she brought me extra coffee," Leuchter explains of his romance with his ex-wife, a waitress he met en route to his gun club. By the time we catch up with Leuchter, the relationship has dissolved and he's a haunted man living in Southern California, but the couple's voyage to wintry Poland is where Mr. Death gets down to business.
Business, in this case, involves revealing the steps that led Leuchter to his perverse status as a Holocaust denier and purveyor of propaganda to that effect. Tapped by Ernst Zündel, a Canadian revisionist historian credited with such publications as The Hitler We Loved and Why, Leuchter becomes a proud political poster boy (which he still sort of is, for the opposite reasons, with this movie). After Zündel is charged in 1988 with spreading false information (his tract Did Six Million Really Die?), he summons Leuchter as his star defense witness, and off Leuchter flies to Poland, to Auschwitz, to earnestly and illegally collect samples to "prove" that the site was never used as a gas chamber. The result is The Leuchter Report, circulated globally.
Poppycock flies freely at this point. Once Zündel sets the tone by declaring in a march that "the Holocaust is nothing but anti-German hatred posing as history," we are in for a ride. Witness impassioned interviews from architectural historian Robert Jan Van Pelt, who fumes at Leuchter's Sherlock Holmesian chiseling at the site as "somebody who walks into the holiest of holies and doesn't give a damn!" Witness British publisher David Irving, author of Hitler's War, who proudly shares his belief that the Holocaust never happened at all. Witness Shelly Shapiro (director of the Holocaust Survivors and Friends Education Center) and Suzanne Tabasky (founder of the Malden, Mass., Holocaust Commission and a grassroots activist against Zündel) as they both question what kind of man would assume Leuchter's role in this insane controversy and point out the power trip it clearly afforded him.
No doubt Morris already has a plaque at the Museum of Tolerance commemorating his work on this project, but, fortunately, his agenda with Mr. Death is not to spell out the obvious. He does spell it out sometimes, of course, because all the evidence of this "controversy" is stacked against Leuchter's puny results from his forensics lab. But the documentary is constructed less in support of a political agenda than as a character study, maybe even something of an utterly unapologetic confessional, for Leuchter. The self-taught engineer retains his queasy balance of naïveté and horror throughout the proceedings, explaining with confidence that the function of Auschwitz remains "a mystery" and asking, wide-eyed and baffled, "Why didn't they just shoot them? Bullets would have been cheaper than doing this!"
If these themes pique your interest, Mr. Death may come off as fascinating, but it's still a fascinating bummer. There are threads of bleak humor to keep us attentive (such as Leuchter trying to sell a lethal-injection control module for $10,000 in the classifieds), and some of the creepy industrial cinematography and sound effects give the project the feel of a Nine Inch Nails video (though most of Caleb Sampson's music sounds more like Philip Glass). Some of the stock footage, particularly an ugly vintage Edison clip of an elephant being electrocuted, is indeed perverse. Morris has developed his skills to the point where he could probably convince an audience of the dairy origins of lunar stones, and the bottom line is that Mr. Death is an affecting film but it just may not be everyone's cup of cyanide.
Opens March 17 at the Tivoli.