It’s hard to watch Errol Morris’ documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., in part because its subject – the titular electric-chair specialist who became a champion of Holocaust deniers after testifying on behalf of one – is so deluded as to make listening to him an ordeal. But there’s something fascinating about the story behind this misguided individual, and Morris tells it in his usual compelling way. In revisiting the film last night, I was struck by a question I asked myself: Does Leuchter realize he comes off as being willfully ignorant?
Morris’ technique, which includes using incidental music and slow motion to comment on the proceedings, often seems tongue-in-cheek, as it does in another one of his documentaries I saw recently: Tabloid, whose subject also could be construed as being misguided. In some way, this strategy detracts from the idea of letting the viewers draw their own conclusions about the individuals appearing onscreen, but it also adds flavor, context, perspective.
I kinda like it.
Other good news: Morris peppers Mr. Death with views from, happily, intelligent people who document the evidence behind Auschwitz’s use as a location to gas Jews to death during the Holocaust, which Leuchter’s poorly generated findings argued against. Still, watching this guy talk is a trial, and it’s difficult not to get frustrated with what he and other Holocaust deniers interviewed onscreen (such as David Irving) have to say. It’s a testament to Morris’ skill that he lets them speak on camera, and I appreciate that. Because how else are we to know what kinds of people we’re dealing with?
A well-done film. Just not one I want to sit through again.