Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999)

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Released 7-Sep-2006

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Theatrical Trailer
Featurette-A Brief History of Errol Morris
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1999
Running Time 91:00
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Errol Morris
Studio
Distributor

Madman Entertainment
Starring Fred A. Leuchter Jr.
Robert Jan Van Pelt
David Irving
Caroline Leuchter
James Roth
Shelly Shapiro
Suzanne Tabasky
Ernst Zündel
David Collins
Daniel Polsby
Jeff Brown
Robert Duerr
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI $29.95 Music Caleb Sampson


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Errol Morris is something of an outsider, even in the niche world of documentary filmmaking. He occupies a position in a kind of limbo as his films are often more properly classified as "non fiction" than documentary. When Morris finally won an Oscar for The Fog of War he cheekily thanked the Academy for recognizing his films - at last!

Mr Death dates from 1999 coming between the truly strange Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and The Fog of War. As is common for Morris the subject is an ordinary person with an unusual story to tell.

Fred A Leuchter Jr. is by any stretch of the imagination an unusual "ordinary" person. He is dubbed Mr Death because he has devoted much of his life to designing, repairing and modifying execution equipment in his native United States. In a country that still routinely executes criminals Leuchter seemed to have plenty of work. He helped not only to give "old sparky" his zap back but tinkered with other means of State termination.

The unassuming Leuchter insists he is no ghoul :

I became involved in the manufacture of execution equipment because I was concerned with the deplorable condition of the hardware that's in most of the state's prisons, which generally results in torture prior to death.

Leuchter is a quirky but generally likeable chap as he gleefully if somewhat incredulously explains how he came to be an expert on all manner of execution devices:

The reasoning here is that I built helmets for electric chairs, so now I could build lethal injection machines. I now build lethal injection machines, so I'm now competent to build a gallows. And since I'm building gallows, I'm also competent to work on gas chambers because I've done all of the other three.

Leuchter presents as an interesting enough character for a documentary but Morris pulls such an alarming twist halfway through the film that the viewer is left gobsmacked. The film is surtitled The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. for a very good reason. In 1990 German born Ernst Zundel was indicted in Canada for inciting racial hatred. At his trial he produced a star witness - Leuchter. The Leuchter Report, tabled in court, showed conclusively so far as Fred was concerned that the gas chambers never existed!!! His strong belief came after he was commissioned to fly to Poland and examine the walls of Auschwitz. Like a bolt through the heart this lovable weirdo is suddenly at the epicentre of Holocaust denial without any particular obvious strain of anti-Semitism.

Morris takes us to places inconceivable at the start of the film and by the end we are forced to question our own ability to get sucked into lies. The case blurb nails it when it calls the film : A psychological study of self-deception and the banality of evil.

What this film has in common with other Morris films is that he does not intrude or force the story. He lets Leuchter write his own metaphoric death warrant. By journeys end we are shaking and shocked by the level of dangerous self-deception practiced by this funny little man. It is grim at times, particularly when Leuchter talks about failed executions that have resulted in agonizing death for the prisoner but there is nothing so chilling as watching this "fool" using a chisel to surreptitiously chip away wall fragments from the gas chamber to prove his case.

Mr Death is a cold experience and not for all documentary fans (there is a 1905 film of an elephant being electrocuted which may disturb some) but it deserves a place high up amongst the best documentaries for its ability to shock and awe the viewer.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Mr Death was filmed in the late 90's but at times it looks older than this date. It receives a 1.85:1 transfer to DVD which is consistent with its original aspect ratio. It is 16x9 enhanced.

The film was shot on a limited budget and has not been cleaned up since release. The source print for this DVD has enough artefacts to disappoint anyone looking for the same razor sharp look of The Fog of War. Still the appearance of the film is only as bad as Fred's fashion choices!

The film has faded and the flesh tones are a little cadaver-like. The scenes in Poland were shot by Fred himself on video and are generally poor in quality. If anything, though, this perhaps enhances the film as they have the look of grave robbers diaries. There are also some video intercuts from various eras which are appropriate to those eras.

The image is at times noisy but watchable. There are English subtitles only.

For documentary fans the look of the film, which isn't that old, will be disappointing however Morris fanatics have long learned to put up with what they are given!

Video Ratings Summary
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Audio

  The sound for Mr Death is Dolby Digital 2.0 running at a low 224Kb/s.

The film is all interview so it doesn't really call for much in the way of audio quality. The voices are clear and easy to understand. The music by Caleb Sampson presents a constant undertone and quiet source of tension in the film. Audio sync is fine.

Generally an adequate if not spectacular soundtrack.

Audio Ratings Summary
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Audio Sync
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Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Theatrical Trailer (1.47)

The theatrical trailer works backwards, starting with Auschwitz and ending with a broad grin from Fred. It makes its own form of disturbing viewing.

Feature: A Brief History of Errol Morris (46.56)

Madman have rewarded Morris fans with this 48 minute long documentary on Morris. The film was made before The Fog of War and follows his career from the very beginning. We meet Werner Herzog who once famously offered to eat his shoe if Morris got off his behind and made a film - we see footage of him chowing down on the shoe! You can't help but be struck by how much these people admire him but also regard him as a little crazy. One project, Weirdo the Super Chicken, about a 28lb chicken, sadly remains unfinished. The film is a great study of Morris although I couldn't help imagining how Morris himself would have done it.

By far the scariest part of the documentary is when Morris tells of how early screenings of the film confused the viewers so much that he was forced to add in arguments contrary to Leuchter's. People either started to believe the man or thought Morris was turning into a denier. Morris was stunned at the reaction believing it to be self-evident that Fred was wrong. But to avoid confusion he introduced elements showing the basic errors in Leuchter's examinations.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

  The Region 1 DVD does not have the documentary. A real coup for Region 4.

Summary

   Mr Death is another great documentary or "non-fiction" film from Errol Morris and a worthy addition to any collection.

The transfer quality is a little disappointing but still adequate for the purpose.

The documentary on Morris is a great extra.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Friday, June 01, 2007
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DVR 630H-S, using Component output
DisplayPanasonic TH-50PV60A 50' Plasma. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080i.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX - SR603
SpeakersOnkyo 6.1 Surround

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