Friday, September 24, 2010

Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred D Leuchter

Errol Morris, 1999, 91m

Fred D Leuchter  is an engineer who specializes in the modification of execution equipment: electric chairs, lethal injection systems, gallows, gas chambers. Being the son of a jail official, he has a good knowledge of the execution process, about how gruesome and painful the results can becme if there is a malfunction of a system when in "use". "I'm for capital punishment but I am not for capital torture," he says. He runs a business which carries out these activities. The first half of the movie is an expose of the various means of execution currently in use in the US.

The dreadfulness lies in the fact that these macabre devices are a part of the sanctioned machinery of the modern state, the darkest edge of the socio-legal spectrum. Leuchter himself is a  nondescript person who talks about these unsavoury realities in a professional, dispassionate tone. His uneven nicotine stained teeth and hesitant smile make him an unattractive individual, whose background and profession have told upon his capacity to feel. What kind of choice of profession is this?

And then fate catapults him into a renown of sorts. He is inducted by a group of Holocaust deniers to testify in a legal proceeding in which one Zundel is on trial for disseminating material which aims to prove the holocaust never happened. He is flown over to the sites of concentration camps where he studies the construction of the gas chambers and takes samples of brickwork, which are chemically analyzed for traces of lethal gases. He comes to the firm conclusion that the gas chambers are a myth, and testifies to that effect. He is feted by the revisionists, flown around for lecture tours and the Leuchter Report is widely published and translated.

But his celebrity status is short lived and he becomes a pariah in his own country. His wife leaves him. His customers, the jail authorities in different states, blacklist him and he stops getting orders for work. In the end, he rues that he has been "persecuted and prosecuted" without any crime. But he remains firm in the belief, based on his professional expertize, that the genocide of the Jews never took place.

Errol Morris says his aim was to enter into the "mindset of denial". What we may gain from the film is self knowledge, our blindness to what is going on under our very nose. Leuchter is immunized to the enormity of the fact of capital punishment. Denial of the holocaust only underlines it's inconceivability. We are able to go through our daily routine by assuming varying degrees of myopia. The world is a country of the blind.

Roger Ebert's review
Todd McCarthy

The picture shows a part of a lethal injection system.


Seongyong Cho said...

I especially like its pompously outrageous opening sequence where Morris makes Leuchter look like a mad scientist. Did Leuchter know what was Morris doing?

While his seriousness about his work is darkly amusing, I could not believe my eye when he did reserch in the concentration camps. My God, he did not even wear gloves!

I think he is a lonely nerd who can talk only about what interests him - probably that loneliness caused that preposterous blindness.

S. M. Rana said...

It is superficially amusing. Todd McCarthy says the first part never fail to elicit titters from the audience. But Morris is deadly serious in his movies and honest in his observation. This movie is about life and death, about capital punishment, about the holocaust, and our own sterility of response. Every country, yours and mine, has experienced horrors which we need to forget or overlook, if not deny.

The humor in his movies is incidental as he points his camera on life as it is taking place in real time.