Errol Morris's
"Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr."
Related Articles
About Fred Leuchter, Jr

Holocaust Denial:
An Online Guide

Bradley Smith's
Campus Campaign

Contact ADL

Help ADL Protect Religious Freedom!

Contribute to ADL
An ADL Film Review
January 2000

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.

The 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 career.

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 views.

Fear 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.)

The 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.

Moreover, 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.

In 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 established.)

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.”

Nonetheless 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.

Morris’s 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.

ADL Home Page | International Home Page
Search | About ADL | Contact ADL | Privacy Policy

© 2001 Anti-Defamation League