Universal // 1999 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // May 24th, 2000
The rise and fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
This Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) documentary is a dark look at morality and ambiguity, along with a personal look at a lonely, small, misguided man who had good intentions. Mostly seen by film festival audiences before now, Universal is now releasing it on DVD. I think this disturbing work is quite worthy of a look, and Universal brings it to you in living color.
By any standard, Fred A. Leuchter is a strange man. The son of a prison warden, he embarked on a career of redesigning and refining execution devices. At the beginning, both the man and his intentions seem good enough; he just believes executions should be done as humanely as possible, and the state of equipment in most prisons were in woeful shape. He recited cases (which I do remember hearing about as news items) of electric chairs that made the victim catch on fire, and various other such problems. In his engineering research Leuchter encountered such chairs, gallows as likely to topple on witnesses as hang the convict, and gas chambers that posed real dangers to law enforcement officers as well as the one being killed. His work led to many prisons hiring him to redesign their own equipment. This isn't exactly a mass-market service item after all.
For the first half of the film, we see the good side of Fred while being able to see that eccentric may be too tame a word for this man. His ability to talk dispassionately about his work and the effects of his devices on the human body contrast with a dark and unwitting sense of humor about it all. The facts that he drinks over 40 cups of coffee and smokes six packs of cigarettes a day also mark him as pretty strange. His short-lived marriage was to a waitress in the coffee shop, who got to spend her honeymoon at Auschwitz. It is here, in the second half of the documentary that things really get dark and we see how a small man can come to the wrong conclusions without any sense of his error.
Since he was considered to be the foremost authority on gas chambers, he is hired to be an expert witness in the trial of a Canadian man who publicly denies the Holocaust existed. Leuchter's job was to inspect the gas chambers at Auschwitz and Birkenau and determine if they were in fact gas chambers. The man on trial financed Leuchter's 1988 trip to Auschwitz, during which he chopped off bits of brick and mortar in areas said to be gas chambers and had them analyzed for cyanide traces. He concluded the chambers never contained gas. The "Leuchter Report" has since been widely quoted by those who deny that the Holocaust took place. What his limited insight failed to reconcile was one fatal flaw in the chemist's report on the samples. Being unaware of what the samples were and exactly what they were looking for, they broke up the brick samples and tested them in that form. Cyanide would penetrate bricks only to the depth of one-tenth of a human hair, he later reports. By pulverizing large chunks they had diluted his samples by 100,000 times, not even taking into account 50 years of weathering. Much different testing methods would have been needed to detect cyanide traces in such samples.
Here is the true downfall of the man. Though Holocaust survivors and historians, along with much of the public at large, despise him, he becomes wanted and appreciated by the neo-Nazi and historical revisionist groups. Being a lonely, small man he must have gravitated to those who would still talk to him. He becomes a standard of revisionism as he lectures to such groups across the country. Unfortunately he is now a pariah to society at large, and prisons quit offering him work, his wife leaves him, and he loses everything he owned. In that regard it is hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for the man as I believe he simply wanted attention and friendship. No one was too friendly with him back when he was designing electric chairs. It is said no one wants to be friends with the hangman.
I found the whole experience dark and disturbing, with a macabre feel hanging overhead. I can't condone the attitudes Leuchter later espouses, and I feel he is a very strange man who just might have been comfortable in Nazi Germany, but I also feel that there is ambiguity in my dislike. After all, if we are going to have a death penalty (which I oppose for many reasons) it makes sense not to endanger anyone else or to force the convict to be tortured and perhaps not even die but only be a vegetable from the execution. His efforts to make executions in America more humane show his good intentions. If indeed he is just trying to be liked by somebody he is worthy of pity as much as hate.
Universal has done a fine job of presenting this dark documentary on DVD. The transfer is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and is without flaw during most scenes. There is footage done outside the studio, such as during the Auschwitz trip covered with a hand-held camcorder, which of course is grainy and not very sharp. For the most part the picture is sharp, detailed, and without blemish or artifact.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround but is more than adequate to this type of film, which is almost completely dialogue anyway. Everything you need to hear is clearly understood.
There really are no extras on this disc, other than the trailer. This is understandable; after all the show itself is an extra. Commentary, interviews; it's all in the documentary. This is one time when a lack of extras is understood.
I really have no complaints here at all, but will say this isn't for everybody. It's dark, baby.
It is dark, macabre, but the documentary is genius at work. You can be moved, repulsed, and made to think or all three in this 90-minute piece. It is definitely thought provoking and worthy of a look by any thinking adult. Not really a film for the kiddies.
Errol Morris is congratulated on his most masterful work to date. It is an incredible character study, and as such I release him to do more such work. Poor Fred, the dupe who seemingly doesn't realize his own limitations, is a three-dimensional person, and cannot be merely labeled as evil. Still I would be happy enough not to see him in my courtroom. The disc is released for public appraisal.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated