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Face to Face With 'Mr. Death'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2000


    'Mr. Death' Holocaust denier Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (Lions Gate Films)
To watch Fred A. Leuchter Jr. spout his poison in "Mr. Death" is deeply discomforting.

But that's not because the bespectacled "expert" of execution devices is assuring us the Nazis never gassed the Jews, or that the Holocaust never happened. Only a bigoted pinhead – if that's not redundant – would buy the laughable experiment he performed at Auschwitz to "prove" this theory.

Here it is: At the request of Ernst Zuendel, a neo-Nazi Canadian on trial for publishing hate literature (e.g. "The Hitler We Loved and Why"), Leuchter illegally scraped pieces of the walls at two former death camps (Auschwitz and Birkenau) in 1988 and sent the material to a laboratory for signs of cyanide. Portions of this trip to Poland are included in the movie.

Amazingly, after half a century, the lab found no physical evidence of a gaseous substance that leaves little evidence on stone walls in the first place. Leuchter published "The Leuchter Report" with these findings and testified on Zuendel's behalf in Canada.

Zuendel lost the case. Jewish organizations targeted Leuchter. Neo-Nazi organizations republished his findings. And Leuchter, who had started appearing on the extremist lecture circuit, went into virtual hiding. Errol Morris, the director of "The Thin Blue Line" and "Pet Cemetery," found him and persuaded him to talk for this film.

It took Morris, a former detective, to track Leuchter down and make this extraordinary documentary. And Leuchter, who speaks relentlessly – almost promiscuously – into the camera, participates in his own moral damning.

What's discomforting is Leuchter's utter belief in his cause. His staggeringly heartfelt and unwitting arrogance. He is not a Brownshirt or antisemite. He is a reasonable human being with a heart, who cares about humanity. At least, in his own way. But he shows how logic, conviction and a sense of right can lead even the meek and mild into cuckoo land.

Leuchter has spent most of his career improving electric chairs, gas chambers, lethal injection beds and even old-fashioned gallows, so that death row prisoners don't have to suffer unreasonably. In fact, his "humane" mark can be found in execution devices around the country.

His bizarre obsession with this subject is explored deeply.

Leuchter thought the Auschwitz trip would be his crowning achievement. To this day, he remains bewildered, shocked, even hurt that most of the world has rejected his arguments. And you watch him, frozen in time, making this plea to the camera: Please believe me. You can't hate him. You can only feel bleak compassion.

MR. DEATH (PG-13, 91 minutes) – Contains morally controversial viewpoints and details about execution devices.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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