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Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.

Errol Morris — who is simply the most inventive, most fascinating documentary filmmaker working today — continues his mission to chronicle extraordinary people in modern society, and where his brilliant Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control essayed four men with four unusual obsessions, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred. A Leuchter Jr. concerns only said Leuchter, an engineer who built his reputation on improving execution devices, including electric chairs, lethal-injection machines, hanging gallows, and gas chambers, even though he only happened into his profession after he built a modern helmet for an antiquated electric chair in Tennessee. Bespectacled and armed with a thick New England accent, Leuchter spends a great deal of his on-camera time during Mr. Death explaining (defending?) his career, as he insists that he is in favor of capital punishment but also is horrified by faulty execution equipment throughout America that often results not just in death, but in prolonged torture. As usual in Morris' films, you the viewer will have to decide how valid Leuchter's comments are (Morris always lets his subjects hang themselves by their own rope, as it were), but the odd obsession that Leuchter has with instruments of death was badly colored by his recruitment into a Canadian court-case involving revisionist German historian Ernst Zündel, who contended that reports of the Holocaust, and the death of six million Jews, were greatly exaggerated. Eager as a jackrabbit — and with his wife, a translator, a draftsman, and a cameraman in tow — Leuchter headed off to Auschwitz and other concentration-camp sites, where he took concrete and soil samples and ultimately concluded that functional gas chambers simply did not exist. His opinions are passionately rebutted by others in the film, but the results for Leuchter have been disastrous ever since. While enjoying a stint on the far-right-wing lecture circuit (and we're talking far right), his professional career was virtually destroyed by his detractors. As many contend, is this creative engineer an anti-Semite? Probably not. But, like many people, did the diminutive man suddenly find himself in the limelight of "expert witness" and overreach his abilities? Perhaps. Yet if that is the case, Leuchter — broke and out of work when the film was made — still refuses to abandon his controversial deductions, and as abhorrent as neo-Nazism may be, Leuchter's ultimate contention that free-speech rights have been trampled cannot be overlooked. Fans of Morris know what to expect here: brisk editing, mood-setting music, and that famous close-up cinematography that skillfully defamiliarizes everyday objects as the main players tell their engrossing tales. Solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), DD 5.1. Trailer, keep-case.

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