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MR. DEATH: THE RISE AND FALL OF FRED A. LEUCHTER JR. (2000)


PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Capital punishment, self-deception, philosophy of history

CHARACTERS: Fred A. Leuchter (subject of the film, name pronounced “Loocher), Carolyn Leuchter (Fred’s ex-wife), Ernst Zundel (holocaust denier who hired Leuchter), David Irving (British Holocaust revisionist and publisher), James Roth (libratory scientist), Shelly Shapiro (revisionist critic), Suzanne Tabasky (revisionist critic), Robert Jan Van Pelt (historian, Auschwitz specialist)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR ERROL MORRIS: Gates of Heaven (1978), The Thin Blue Line (1988), A Brief History of Time (1992), Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997), The Fog of War (2003).

SYNOPSIS: The following summary is from the official production notes to the film: “Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., an engineer from Malden, Mass. decided to become the Florence Nightengale of Death Row – a humanitarian whose mission was to design and repair, electric chairs, lethal injection systems, gallows and gas chambers, . In 1988, Ernst Zundel, publisher of ‘Did Six Million Really Die?’ and ‘The Hitler We Loved and Why’ commissioned Leuchter to conduct a forensic investigation into the use of poison gas in WWII Nazi concentration camps. Leuchter traveled to Auschwitz and illegally took brick and mortar samples for analysis in order to ‘prove’ that the Holocaust never happened. Leuchter fully expected his involvement with Ernst Zundel to be the crowning achievement of his career, but instead it ruined him. Reopening the doors to this century's keystone atrocity. Morris bypasses a more obvious discourse on bigotry to examine instead the origins of evil in vanity and self-deception.” Mark Singer, in a review of Morris’s movie, provides the following background to the film: “The Leuchter saga seemed to offer Morris the chance to fulfill a long-nurtured ambition, ‘to make a Holocaust movie without reference to what other people have done.’ Morris thought about adding Leuchter to the menagerie of monomaniacs he'd gathered for ‘Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,’ a notion he abandoned when his wife advised, ‘Properly considered, Hitler is not a Spice.’ I once asked Morris his opinion of ‘Schindler's List,’ and he said, ‘Spielberg has the interesting thesis that anybody can be a hero, whereas I have the far more interesting thesis that anybody can think he's a hero.’ It's an important Morris principle: we never truly know what we presume we know.” An philosophically illuminating interview with Morris on the subject of this film is contained on Morris's website: errolmorris.com/content/interview/moma1999.html

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. The film opens with Leuchter seated at the Van de Graff lightening generator at the Boston Museum of Science. In an interview, Morris states the following: "This is the world's largest lightning machine. From very early on, just this image came into my head, Fred and the lightning machine, Fred as God, Fred as Zeus or Thor, hurling lightning bolts. It seemed to capture how Fred saw himself, Fred as the arbiter of life and death." Is this an appropriate metaphor for how Leuchter saw himself?

2. The film opens with Leuchter making this comment: “I became involve in the manufacture of execution equipment because I was concerned with the deplorable condition of the hardware that’s in most of the states’ prisons which generally results in torture prior to death.” Leuchter himself is a proponent of the death penalty. Is it more strange for a proponent or opponent of the death penalty to redesign execution equipment out of sympathy for the executed person?

3. Leuchter states that, when re-designing Tennessee’s electric chair, he was supposed to use the wood from the original chair since it had been in use since 1898, and, prior to that, the wood was part of Tennessee’s gallows. We typically preserve traditions for the sake of people who value those traditions. By retaining the original wood, who were the people for which Tennessee was preserving this tradition?

4. When the original Tennessee electric chair arrived at Leuchter’s house, he took a photo of himself strapped into it. Although this seems insensitive, a lot of people would surely have done the same thing, just for the sake of the novelty. What does this say about the value that we place on the lives of executed people (keep in mind that some were probably innocent)?

5. Examining a strange image on the photograph of the Tennessee electric chair, Leuchter speculates that it might have been the auras of executed people that became embedded in the wood. But, “I don’t know,” Leuchter concludes. Considering the fact that he would even entertain this theory, what does this say about his ability to scientifically evaluate an hypothesis?

6. Leuchter received a contract to redesign New Jersey’s lethal injection procedure because of his past experience with electric chairs. This led to contracts for redesigning gallows and gas chambers. He notes an irony to this since the apparatuses have nothing to do with each other physically. What skills carry over in the design of one such device to another?

7. Did the skills noted in the previous question qualify him to do scientific/historical research on Auschwitz?

8. Leuchter states that he drinks 40 cups of coffee and smokes six packs of cigarettes a day. Does this element of his personality tie in with his work on execution devices or his involvement with holocaust revisionists?

9. Ernst Zundel was prosecuted in Canada under an obscure law, alleging that he knowingly published false information that could cause racial intolerance. According to Leuchter, Zundel could have faced up to 25 years in prison if found guilty. Is this a good or a bad law?

10. Robert Jan Van Pelt stated that Leuchter’s trip to Auschwitz was sacrilege: he was “somebody who walks into the holy of holies and doesn’t give a damn.” Is the charge of sacrilege appropriate?

11. Some of the backlash against Leuchter was foreseeable, such as loss of government contracts and even his divorce. Was some of the public vendetta against him unjustified?

12. Zundel states near the end of the film, “we will not go down in history as being a society of genocidal maniacs; we will not! We can with historical truth detoxify a poisoned planet.” Is it a lost cause for Zundel, and, if so, why?

13. At the close of the film we hear Morris ask Leuchter: “Have you ever thought that you might be wrong, or do you think that could make a mistake.” Leuchter responded, “No, I’m passed that. When I attempted to turn those facilities into gas execution facilities and was unable to, I made a decision at that point that I wasn’t wrong... I did everything possible to substantiate and prove the existence of the gas chambers and I was unable to.” Does this reveal an element of unfalsifiability in Leuchter’s approach to his subject?

14. With many historical claims, it is not really important whether they are true or false, such as whether George Washington chopped down a cherry tree when a child. Other claims, though, are highly charged, such as whether Mary Queen of Scotts aided in the murder of her husband. What, generally speaking, determines the importance or unimportance of historical claims?

15. Philosophers familiar with arguments of skeptics are aware that few if any truths can be demonstrated with absolute certainty. This is certainly the case with historical claims, which rest on testimony. Nevertheless, in our normal lives, we express clear convictions that some alleged historical event did indeed occur, or did not occur. Is extreme skepticism irrelevant to serious historical research?

16. In an interview with Ron Rosenbaum, Rosenbaum asked Morris the following: "is Holocaust denial sort of the end of relativism? Do you believe that there is such a thing as real, historical truth? Or is it all socially constructed or a matter of perspective?" Morris replied, "Yes, I believe there is such a thing as real, historical truth. I am no post-modernist. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And one of the nice things about Cambridge, Massachusetts is that "Baudrillard" [i.e., French post modernist Jean Baudrillard] isn't in the phone book." Is MOrris correct that there is real, historical truth that we can discover?

17. The subtitle of the film “The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.” is an allusion to William L. Shirer’s book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. In what ways is the parallel appropriate or inappropriate?

18. One reviewer described the film as “a gripping study of the banality of evil,” which is an allusion to Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report of the Banality of Evil. In this she argues that the Nazi treatment of the Jews resulted from their trivialization of evil behavior and its consequences. This, in turn, resulted from their failure to fully recognize our common human characteristics. Leuchter was clearly not as callous as a Nazi SS soldier. But in what ways if any do his views reflect a trivialization of evil?

19. In an interview, Morris states the following: “One of the most disturbing aspects of this story for me is that I don't believe that Fred is anti-Semitic, so the most obvious explanation of why he does what he does I find unsatisfactory. This is about how Fred may be one of us. By looking at Fred Leuchter, we see on one hand someone who is clearly in his own world yet when all is said and done, he is a seemingly rational individual and so it makes you wonder.” In short, each of us should recognize that we too could fall into the same trap. Is this a likely scenario, or is there something unique to Leuchter’s personality that inclined him towards this?

20. Since Leuchter was not previously associated with any Nazi organizations, many people felt the need to give a psychological explanation for why he supported Zundel’s cause. Some of these were vanity, antisemitism, naiveté, fame, the desire to be loved, and simply being swept up by a force larger than he could control. Do any of these seem more plausible than others?

21. In an interview, Morris stated the following: "I have read a number of reviewers who have taken me to task for not declaring whether I believe Leuchter is a good person or evil person, that somehow I’ve been remiss in this regard. I beg to differ. The movie is absolutely clear that his ideas are pernicious and false. That is not up for discussion. What is up for discussion is that I wish to put the viewer in the same position for what I find myself in. It’s not to give you on a platter a received view but to force you into the mystery of what is in fact very disturbing and peculiar behavior.” Should Morris have made it more clear that Leuchter's "ideas are pernicious and false"?

22. In an interview, Morris states the following about Leuchter: "For many, many years I have been in search of what I would call the absolutely clueless narrator, the narrator who has absolutely no perspective about himself, whatsoever. You've all heard about the examined life. Here's an example of a life, which has not been examined at all. That's right, the totally unexamined life." Does Leuchter in fact have no perspective about himself?

23. In an interview, Morris describes Leuchter's reaction when (after the film was finished) Morris presented him with documents from Auschwitz provided by Van Pelt. "So yes, I give him the laundry list of documents and Fred says, 'Well I don'tknow if they're genuine. I don't know where Robert-Jan van Pelt found thesedocuments. I would have to simply take his word for it and since I don't reallyknow enough about this evidence, I'm going to stick to my original position.' Which goes to show you that if you really want to hold on to a belief, no matterhow misguided, no matter how pernicious, no matter how wrong, you can do so." What might be another example of this type of self-brainwashing through stubbornness?

REVIEWS

Mr. Death is an excellent documentary on one of the strangest men in America. Most Americans have probably never heard of Fred Leutcher. He is a man that despite the fact he lacked any formal training, gained a reputation for being an expert on execution equipment. He worked on many different types of execution equipment: electric chair, gallows, gas chamber, and lethal injection machines. It was interesting to listen to Leutcher talk about this. His personal life was a minor part of the film as well. He claims to drink forty cups of coffee and smoke six packs of cigarettes daily. The strangest thing about Fred Leutcher is his insatiable desire to feel important. This is something that shows up in all humans in varying degrees. Leutcher's desire to be a "somebody" grows as he is sought after by more states to restructure their faulty execution equipment. Eventually, he is contacted by Ernst Zurich, a German man who believes the Holocaust is a hoax and is being taken to court for spreading materials in Canada that espoused his beliefs. After some strange experiments conducted at Auschwitz, Leutcher begins to believe that Zurich is right and supplies a testimony that supports him in the trial. After the trial, Leutcher loses all of his state contacts and cannot find work. His wife leaves him and his life basically falls apart. Leutcher then began speaking in the Neo-Nazi circuit, sharing his research of Auschwitz with these enthusiastically supportive audiences. I really liked this documentary because of Fred, plain and simple. He was such an intriguing person; I was glued to the screen from the first words he spoke. Errol Morris aided in this because his directing style allows the subject to do 99% of the talking. Leutcher in his own words made this movie worthwhile. -- Levitator

“Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter Jr. was a brilliant portrayal of the depth’s to which human beings are capable of self-deception. This was far and away my favorite movie of the semester. Fred is a lovable character who happens to drink 50 cups of coffee a day and smokes something like 6 packs of cigarettes a day. It seems that just from that information one could conceive that he has some sort of problem. Fred made his beginnings designing (or re-designing) electric chairs to be more efficient and less painful to the convict being executed. This seems a noble task. When word got around of his work on electric chairs, he was commissioned to build other death-dealing devices, such as lethal injection machines, gallows, and gas chambers. He builds the devices successfully, which is a miracle considering he has no engineering degrees or any degrees whatsoever. Fred’s downfall ultimately came when he was commissioned as “the foremost expert in death devices” buy a Neo-Nazi looking to prove that the chambers claimed to be used as gas chambers at Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp, were not death chambers at all. Fred, being a stickler for the truth, decides to take the job. What ensues is Fred (illegally) collects samples from several sites on Auschwitz using what are most likely very unscientific methods. He sends these samples to the lab, telling them to test for Arsenic in the contents and they find none, not surprising considering they ran the wrong type of tests as a result of the information they were given. Fred since has been convinced that the Holocaust is a lie because he is completely satisfied with his means of collecting data, and takes comfort that his little experiment is all but infallible in his mind. Needless to say, Fred doesn’t have many friends now aside from the one’s he makes at Skinhead meetings. Its simply unbelievable the lengths this man has gone to in convincing himself that he is right considering all the evidence against him. Simply shocking. -- Cardinal Sinner


 
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