Screen Reviews

Mr. Death – The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter

Directed by Errol Morris

Engineering – the Thankless Job. You work hard and long to lessen the plight of the condemned, often on your own time, try to make their final passing a bit less miserable. Few schools offer “Execution Engineering” as an elective, certainly not where I went, and I looked. Fred Leuchter had to learn the ropes by himself. Dedicated technologist and social zero, Fred upgraded the electric chairs and gas chambers, and improve lethal injection machines in state prisons across the land. His goal – a clean, humane kill. With most chairs built by inmates over the last hundred years or so, no consideration went to those medical or engineering details so important to minimizing the cruelty.

Now, you don’t just get gas chamber experts from the Yellow Pages, and when neo-Nazi (or more politely, “revisionist historian”) Ernst Zunder needs one in court, he calls on Fred. Seeing an interesting problem rather than a public relations nightmare, Fred agrees to examine Auswitz which Zunder claims never had a gas chamber. A little outside his field, with no German and not much skill at collecting forensic or archeological samples, Fred makes a bad call. Now a defender of the revisionist claims, going from darling of the penal world to total schmendik. Even his tough old coffee shop waitress wife leaves him. None of this pays the rent.

Shot in a gritty cinema verite style, Morris present Fred as a sincere man who steps outside his expertise and into a mess he should have seen coming. Poor Fred.


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