An ADL Film Review
Morris’s style combines direct interviews with the
subject and with other participants in his story, stock footage, and very
stylized reenactments of the story he seeks to tell.
film begins with a focus on Leuchter’s work as a designer of execution
equipment: gas chambers, lethal injection devices, electric chairs, and even
gallows. He comes across in
these early segments as a “reluctant” expert, coming to the issue of the
death penalty and its applications without any political convictions, and
finding work only because of the otherwise unmet demands of prison wardens
desperate for functioning death technology.
What Leuchter did prior to his work with these devices remains a
mystery, as does his decision to make this specialty into a full-time
In fact, Leuchter comes across throughout the film as
a great enigma: a physically ungainly man, seemingly oblivious to the
impression he has on other people, and apparently clueless both to the
outlandishness of his story and his own responsibility for the predicament
he has created for himself. By
portraying Leuchter as a lonely, eccentric underdog – by humanizing and
personalizing him – the film runs a risk of granting sympathy to his
that audiences will become sentimental about Leuchter is, in fact,
unwarranted. The more we see of
him, in fact, the less sympathetic he becomes.
What emerges as he pontificates on the necessity of designing more
comfortable electric chairs – to say nothing of his obscene convictions
about Auschwitz – is a
portrait of extravagant, repulsive stupidity.
More than mere vapidity, Leuchter exhibits a primarily moral dimness.
At one point, while talking about this work for the capital
punishment “industry,” Leuchter poses the rhetorical question, “People
ask me if working on execution equipment has changed me.
And I always say, ‘Why would it change me’?”
This ultimately is the point of the movie: nothing changes for
Leuchter—not when he’s working on lethal injection machines, not when
he’s visiting Auschwitz. (By the way, the contiguity in this film of Leuchter’s
involvement with capital punishment and the Holocaust inevitably, and
deliberately, undermines the logic of the death penalty.
If anything, this, more than attacking the Holocaust-denial movement
per se, is the real political agenda of the movie.)
consequences of Leuchter’s moral blindness and monstrous narcissism
reverberate in the opening segments, but they resound fully in the last
two-thirds of film, which describes in considerable detail his involvement
with the Holocaust denial movement. For
Leuchter himself, the primary lessons of Auschwitz are ludicrous in their
banality: at one point, he says that going to Auschwitz made him appreciate
the blessing of America because the food in Poland is terrible, and his bed
was uncomfortable. He simply
lacks any historical understanding of the Holocaust.
This is why onscreen representatives of the Jewish
community—primarily Shelly Shapiro—are wrong when they attempt to
portray Leuchter as a vicious anti-Semite.
Anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, demands a belief, however
warped, in an abstract principle; primarily, it requires a belief that one
good race is being persecuted by a bad, evil race (the Jews).
Even the thuggish metaphysics of racism are beyond Leuchter.
this essential self-centeredness makes for the most pathetic revelations in
the documentary. Leuchter’s
ex-wife, who appears only as an off-screen voiceover, states that in the
month they spent in Poland, immediately following their marriage, Leuchter
was so preoccupied with vandalizing the gas chambers that they never slept
in the same bed once. This is
more than a snickering detail; it speaks to the heart of Leuchter's
inability to connect emotionally with other people, and thus to his
persistence in denying the suffering of Holocaust victims and survivors.
addition to the personal insights offered by Leuchter’s ex-wife, Morris
places Auschwitz scholar Robert Van Der Pelt on screen to attack the premise
of Leuchter’s research. Not
only does he show the documents calling for the construction of gas chambers
at Auschwitz, he also states that the buildings that Leuchter vandalized for
his “specimens” were probably the location of more human misery and more
murders than any other structures on earth.
The juxtaposition of this comment with video footage of Leuchter
rummaging through the muck at Birkenau is devastating.
Equally appalling are Leuchter’s own comments about the death
camps: unable to identify with the victims of the Holocaust, and lacking any
sense of historical perspective, he compares these ruins with modern
American prisons. “If these
are supposed to be gas chambers,” he says, “where are the ventilation
units? Where are the air-tight
doors?” Offering yet more
evidence of his benightedness, he states, “The whole principal of gas
chambers doesn’t make any sense. It would have been cheaper for the Nazis to shoot the
Jews—bullets are cheaper than cyanide gas.
It would have been easier for them to have buried them alive.”
Not only does Leuchter presume to use his expertise to advise the
Germans, after the fact, on better methods of execution, he also reveals the
fundamental failure of his moral logic; for Leuchter, because the Holocaust
defies explanation, it never could have happened.
(Moreover, the Germans did,
of course, shoot and buy Jews alive before the gas chambers were
Further still, Morris interviews James Roth, the
chemist who performed the lab experiments through which Leuchter was able to
reach his fraudulent conclusions that “no gas chambers existed at
Auschwitz.” Roth reveals that
he was never told the nature of the trial for which he was asked to testify,
and that he was misled as to the source and the content of his chemical
samples. Cyanide gas, he
explains, bonds with materials only at the very outer surface of 10 microns;
a human hair is approximately 100 microns wide.
When Leuchter’s samples from Auschwitz were crushed in the
laboratory, they became so diluted, Roth explains, that no trace of cyanide
could possibly be found. Speaking
directly on camera, Roth states, “I don’t think the results of the
Leuchter report have any validity.”
for the Holocaust denial crowd, Leuchter’s conclusions have attained the
status of gospel, and this movie will not change their ideology in the
slightest. Ingrid Rimland, for
example, explains Roth’s unequivocal repudiation of Leuchter’s
experiment by writing, in a September 20, 1999, Zundelgram, “[Roth] does a
switcheroo. He says – and now
get this! – that ***had he known where the samples came from***, the test
results would have been different. Well,
we believe him. Sure.
Why not? After a decade
of thinking it over, he has had Leuchter’s experience to look back on –
as an example of what happens to those who are unwilling to prostitute
science. A man has got to
eat.” Needless to say, Roth doesn’t come across on screen the way
Rimland portrays him. Her
insistence on the truth of the Leuchter report is as delusional as her
insistence, from the beginning, that the Holocaust never happened.
film offers additional insights into the Holocaust denial movement as a
whole by showing two of its leading lights – Ernst Zundel and David Irving
– on camera describing their relationship with Leuchter.
Holocaust deniers such as Rimland and Zundel have
acclaimed the film for giving mainstream exposure to their cause –
apparently operating under the assumption that there’s no such thing as
bad publicity. But the film
exposes this movement in all its mendacity and hatefulness. It also offers an almost harrowing portrait of how foolishly one person can misspend his life.