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Triumph of the Chill

Mr. Death shows what evil lurks in the hearts of geeks.

Among the qualities that make Fred A. Leuchter Jr. a buffoon who's also an accomplice to evil, his desperate hunger for attention is the most obvious. He's like the hick-town wallflower who's always getting lured into the visiting hustler's backseat for a quickie.

When the state of Tennessee asked Leuchter to design a better electric chair, the mousy, bespectacled "execution consultant" from Malden, Massachusetts, delighted in tackling the technical problems of the job, then proudly sold the finished product to his employers "with a 20-percent markup -- which is more than fair," he tells us.

For the impressionable Leuchter, a lifelong fascination with the machinery of death easily morphed into a second career in Holocaust denial. In 1988, a neo-Nazi named Ernst Zundel, author of such tracts as The Hitler We Loved and Why, hired Leuchter to conduct a forensic investigation of the use of poison gas by the Germans at Auschwitz. Naturally, the self-proclaimed "engineer" was duly flattered. So he snuck down into the site of the death camp's infamous Crema Two, where half a million prisoners were murdered, and began chiseling away at the walls in an alleged search for traces of cyanide. Later, his chemistry experiment was exposed as bogus and his samples meaningless. And skeptics pointed out that he never even bothered to visit the camp's research archives. But that didn't stem Leuchter's new sense of self-importance. After defacing one of the most sacred places on earth for a week -- while his new bride sat out in the car doing crossword puzzles -- this bungling amateur concluded in the infamous Leuchter Report that gas chambers never existed at Auschwitz.

Slicker Holocaust deniers, like the controversial English historian David Irving, used Leuchter's "findings" for their own propaganda purposes. But even when the opprobrium of scientists and historians hailed down on him, it didn't much deflate Fred, who began calling himself a "victim of conspiracy." So when investigative filmmaker Errol Morris approached Leuchter in 1992 with the idea of making a documentary about him, he not only agreed but promptly began spouting the old nonsense to Morris's cameras in such profusion that even the filmmaker was surprised. The wallflower had been seduced again, and he loved every minute of it.

The result of this latest blind indiscretion is Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., a full-blown portrait of a dunce and a dupe that's as chilling as it is hilarious. In Leuchter, Morris seems to have found the subject he's been searching for throughout his career, a career in which he's distinguished himself as a black humorist with an uncanny instinct for the extremes of human conduct. Now he reveals a deluded idealist trapped in a moral vacuum, a vain moron who just can't keep his mouth shut about his imaginary expertise and his lame insights. Seen in another light, Fred Leuchter is a nonentity who personifies what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil." He's a devil's functionary who cloaks himself in innocence, like Hitler's minions.

Those familiar with Errol Morris's previous films know that his taste for bizarre personalities and grotesque modes of thought runs pretty deep. In 1978 he directed Gates of Heaven, which introduced viewers to the strange world of California pet cemeteries. Vernon, Florida was about the eccentric residents of a Southern swamp town, some of whom were selling their own limbs to make ends meet. In 1988, The Thin Blue Line was credited with overturning the conviction of an innocent man, Randall Dale Adams, who was sitting on death row for the murder of a Dallas police officer. In 1997's much heralded Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Morris combined seemingly unrelated portraits of a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a designer of robots and a biologist who studies mole rats into a unsettling tableau of obsessive behavior.

Leuchter's is a more malignant brand of self-absorption, framed by shocking stupidity. Musing about the mechanics of lethal injection, he suggests (quite reasonably, he thinks) that any death chamber would benefit from TV, piped-in music and some pictures on the wall. After mucking around at Auschwitz and falling under the spell of the revisionists, he declares: "What happened in all these facilities is a mystery. It just doesn't seem to make any sense." For manipulators like Zundel and Irving, such ill-considered utterances made Leuchter a "hero." Indeed, he became a minor star at Holocaust-denial conferences, spouting off about his "responsibility to the truth."

Unsupported by skill, sense or science, Fred Leuchter's version of the truth withstands no scrutiny. But the detached Morris rarely needs to press him. Instead, this canny filmmaker simply provides the rope with which the execution consultant of yore hangs himself; the visual and verbal forum of Mr. Deathis itself a most effective death chamber. From Leuchter's own relentless stream of words, we learn that he has always been committed to providing the equipment for "humane executions" and, just as important, "for a price far lower than hiring an engineering firm." We learn that he sleeps well at night, confident that his life has been well-spent. We learn that Fred drinks forty cups of coffee a day and that the Holocaust is a myth, that the better electric chair he designed for Tennessee is one of the great achievements of his career, and that, following the controversy over the Leuchter Report, that "business orders" dropped off markedly. Most vividly of all, we learn that Leuchter has insulated himself from the consequences of his actions with such blind disregard that, for him, those consequences no longer exist. At once mouse and monster, Fred Leuchter is Errol Morris's most valuable find to date -- and the most terrifying. If the grand follies and mass agonies of the twentieth century can be summed up in the life of one anonymous geek, here's the guy.

 
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