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Mr. Death, 1999

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Errol Morris, 1999
130 minuten

When director Morris originally screened an early version of the film for a Harvard film class, he found that the students reacted by either believing Leuchter’s side of the story or by condemning the film as a piece of Holocaust denial. Morris had no such intention, however, as Morris had considered it obvious that Leuchter was wrong, and that the main idea of the film was intended to be the exploration of Leuchter as a being almost completely lacking in self-knowledge:

“The Holocaust has been used in movies as a way of increasing drama in a sense that the triumph of the human spirit never looked so triumphant against the horrors. This movie attempts to do something very different. It’s to try to enter the mindset of denial. You are asked to reflect on the whole idea of denial in general, not as some postwar phenomenon but as something that was inherent in the enterprise itself. You would think it would be the easiest thing in the world to identify this behavior as wrong, horrific, depraved. Those people did these things. To me, the question is how. With Mr. Death, it’s about finding out why Fred Leuchter holds these views.”

Thus, the “fall” of Leuchter’s life is portrayed not as a result of any particular ill feelings toward the Jewish people or passionate support for revisionist history, but rather as an absurd man bumbling into making politically incorrect statements. Errol Morris re-edited the film to include additional interviews with people who condemn Leuchter with varying intensity. Morris said this last part should have been unnecessary, since, to him, Leuchter was so obviously misguided in much of what he says in the film.

In the course of the film Leuchter goes so far as to state frankly that he could not believe in the gas chambers because he could not himself conceive of their mechanics, although he makes it plainly evident that he knows very little of the history in which these arose. He suggests a series of options (hanging, shooting, and explosives), most of which the Nazis had in fact attempted (shootings and explosives) before determining that direct, ongoing, and extensive SS involvement would not be sufficient to achieve the genocidal objectives they set for themselves after earlier forays into mass murder, such as Einsatzgruppen and Babi Yar. Leuchter similarly appears unaware of the T-4 Euthanasia Program and the history or science behind small-scale gassings directed by Hitler’s Reich Chancellery and then the SS. In a rather direct sense, the film offers that the Holocaust is fundamentally inconceivable, if not impossible, in Leuchter’s mind.

Morris examines but pursues neither Leuchter’s opposition, if not aversion, to gas as a means of execution (Leuchter states his belief that it is an overly hazardous means of execution in terms of other participants) nor his imputed lack of practical experience with it. His general concern with the safety of gassing methods appear to be a cause of his disbelief in the viability of the gas chambers, the venting process for which he believed would pose a serious threat to their operators. His critics reply:

Nonsense; it is all a question of concentration. Once the gas is released into the atmosphere, its concentration decreases and it is no longer dangerous. Also, HCN dissipates quickly. The execution gas chambers in US prisons are also ventilated directly into the atmosphere. Furthermore, if this argument would hold for the extermination chambers, it would hold for the delousing chambers as well, and one would have to conclude that no delousing chambers existed either.

Robert Jan van Pelt, who appears in Mr. Death to specify some of Leuchter’s scholarly failures (e.g. not consulting the large documentation archive available at Auschwitz), served as the primary expert witness against David Irving in his libel trial, relating to the court the strength of the physical and documentary evidence supporting the use of that camp for gassing. That testimony was printed as The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial (ISBN 0-253-34016-0).Van Pelt is also the co-author, with Deborah Dwork, of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present. (New York: Norton, 1990)