. . . Mr. Death

. . .

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

Though Errol Morris has a nose for good stories, the smooth 1000-Strings-stylings of his bigger-budgeted recent movies haven't helped 'em along. They're constantly being interrupted by ads for themselves.

Through the first half of Mr. Death, I thought the perfect match for Morris's weirdly inflationary-but-insulting mannerisms had finally been found in Fred Leuchter. A completely transparent guy with jaw-droppingly clueless aplomb who loves to pose and play-act, Leuchter is a character worthy of a Kurt Vonnegut novel at least, maybe even a Nathanael West novel. The camera loves him like the ax loves the turkey.

From the Shoah-like trains that carted condemned men to the prison where Leuchter's father worked, all through Leuchter's own long and geekily proud career in improving the efficiency of death machines, I was thinking, yes, this is the best American movie ever made about the Holocaust, the only possible American movie about the Holocaust: one which shows how such an operation might find willing just-do-it workers among us regular narrow-minded free-thinking down-home never-admit-a-mistake American folks.

Well, it was the best American movie about the Holocaust till it got to the Holocaust-denial material, anyway. 'Cause then Morris started flailing, dragging in a chorus of disapproval and filming them like a VH-1 production of a PBS pledge drive. I guess he was afraid that he hadn't done a good enough job of letting Leuchter and Co. undercut themselves. Unfortunately, in a movie so focused on smug pomposity, hellfire sermons to the choir aren't likely to sway the unbeliever's sympathy.

Enjoy the Show Not that I'm against attacks on neo-Nazis. But Morris's style is kinder to bare fact than to strong opinion, which is why his most effective hostile witness is the chemist who unknowingly analyzed Leuchter's wall samples -- a genuinely scientific counterweight to Leuchter's amateurish investigator -- and why I wish he could've included the forensic analyses made in 1945 and the surefire laugh-getter that the building we saw Leuchter scraping so many of those wall samples from wasn't an original gas chamber at all but a reconstruction built after WWII. Instead we got a debate between one guy with an accent saying "This is an outrage!" and another guy with an accent saying "This is an outrage!"

A pity about the fumble, then (as David Irving might say about the Russian Campaign), but there's still a great story rolling under the interruptions. Leuchter continues to astound, and so do his new friends, most irresistably that Canucknut Mephistopheles, Ernst Zündel, who seems to remind just everyone of The Producers' Franz Liebkind....


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