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

1999 film by Errol Morris

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is a 1999 American documentary film about the life and career of the infamous American execution device designer and holocaust denier Fred A. Leuchter.

Directed by Errol Morris.

Fred A. Leuchter

  • 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 states' prisons, which generally results in torture prior to death. A number of years ago I was asked by a state to look at their electric chair. I was surprised at the condition of the equipment and I indicated to them what changes should be made to bring the equipment up to the point of doing a humane execution.
  • The human body is not easy to destroy and it is not easy to take a life humanely and painlessly without doing a great deal of damage to the individual's body. Excess current cooks the tissue. There have been occasions where a great amount of current has been applied and the meat actually will come off the executee's body like the meat coming off a cooked chicken.
  • As you've probably guessed by now, I am a proponent of capital punishment. I am certainly not a proponent of capital torture. We must always remember and we must never forget, the fact that the person being executed is a human being. One of the things that I've had to deal with is the feelings of the people who are doing the executions. The guards that work with the execution equipment are generally the same guards that have dealt with that inmate for the last five, ten, fifteen, and sometimes twenty years while the man was on death row. . . .Most people think of a hardened criminal and a murderer as someone who is in a cell and going to be executed, but these people are really no different than somebody that we work with every day. The only difference is that the inmate doesn't go home and the guard does. And now at the end of this ten or fifteen year cycle, they now are faced with the task of executing this man with equipment that's defective. With equipment that 's going to cause pain.
  • I've been drinking coffee for a long time, since I was probably around 4 or 5 years old. It's still true, I love coffee. I think it's running through my veins. Coffee never bothers the ulcer, but I remember, must be 15, 20 years ago when I went to the doctor, he was asking me, how much coffee do you drink a day, and I says, about 40 cups, so he's writing down. He says, how much coffee you drink a day? And I says about 40 cups. He says, how much coffee do you drink a day? and I says about 40 cups. He says, look, I am not kidding. I says, I'm not kidding either. He said, Oh? How much do you smoke a day? I said about six packs. He said, six packs of cigarettes, 40 cups of coffee a day, he says, you should be dead by now. [laughs]
  • Because of my expertise in the construction of execution equipment, I was asked to testify by the defense team of Mr. Ernst Zundel, a German national living in Canada, for some 20 odd years, who published a pamphlet, 'Did Six Million Really Die?'.
  • What happened in all of these facilities is undoubtedly a mystery. Whether or not these facilities were used for gas execution, that's not a mystery; I don't believe they were, because in my best engineering opinion I don't think they could've been.
  • Of course I'm not an anti-Semite. I have a lot of friends that are Jewish. I've lost Jewish friends, too, because of what's happened. I bear no ill will to any Jews any place, whether they're in the United States or abroad. I bear a great deal of ill will to those people that have come after me, those people who have persecuted and prosecuted me, but that's got nothing to do with them being Jewish. That only has to do with the fact that they've been interfering with my right to live, think, breathe, and earn a living.

Ernst Zundel

  • We can solve the mystery of the gas chambers in Auschwitz and all these other places if we find an American expert, because America is the only country that dispatches people with gas. You can't open up the telephone book and say gas, and then chamber, and then experts, and out come ten Fred Leuchters. No. There's nobody. Fred Leuchter was our only hope. This was the first time that the scene of the crime of mass murder, industrial mass murder, was examined forensically.
  • When my doubt about the Holocaust first came to me, it took me two and a half years, and I was like a reforming alcoholic. I was like one yo-yo, back and forth: believe, not believe, maybe believe, false belief, true belief. Fred was able to purge his own mind within a matter of a week. That's amazing to me. So I said: 'Fred, what convinced you?' He said: 'Ernst, it wasn't what I found, it was what I didn't find.' That blew me away. It never, ever occurred to me that a man could be convinced by something that is not there. That's what Fred said.
  • The Leuchter Report, about five hundred thousand circulate in Germany. There have been translations; a Leuchter edition appeared in Russian. In Latvia, in Hungary, in Spanish. The Leuchter Report is out there in dozens of languages, and I would dare say in millions of copies. We will not go down in history as being a nation of genocidal maniacs. We will not. We can, with historical truth, detoxify a poisoned planet.

Robert-Jan Van Pelt

  • Holocaust denial for me is so revolting, and the way for me not to immediately become sick with having to deal with Leuchter, was by saying, OK, I am going to map his journey. I have a job to do and my job, my first job, is to try to understand where this guy was at what time. To take that tape and to record every camera angle, where it was, what piece of wall they were looking at, where he took the samples. It was important to be able to follow that trail very, very precisely. I wanted to see how he had done it.
  • Leuchter is a victim of the myth of Sherlock Holmes. A crime has been committed. You go to the site of the crime and with a magnifying glass you find a hair, or you find a speck of dust on the shoe. Leuchter thinks that is the way reality can be reconstructed. But he is no Sherlock Holmes.
  • Crematorium II is the most lethal building of Auschwitz. In the 2500 square feet of this one room, more people lost their lives than any other place on this planet. 500,000 people were killed. If you would draw a map of human suffering, if you created a geography of atrocity, this would be the absolute center. Every year, remains of human beings are found. Bones, teeth. The earth doesn't rest.
  • Holocaust denial is a story about vanity. It is a way to get in the limelight, to be noticed -- to be someone -- maybe to be loved. I have a sympathy to Fred, who's lost in Auschwitz, because I think he's lost. But not any more with the Fred who appears in these conferences.

David Irving

  • He's not the kind of person that would strike you. He is a mouse of a man. He's also a man who is totally honest and totally innocent; innocent in the sense of being a simpleton. He went into this as a glorious adventure. He was taken out of oblivion. He was given this task to perform. He traveled abroad, probably for the first time in his life, to Poland. He came back with these earth-shattering results. The big point: there is no significant residue of cyanide in the brickwork. That's what converted me.
  • He's been destroyed as a human being; he's had his marriage destroyed, he's had his life destroyed. I frankly am surprised he didn't go and commit suicide, jump under a train. He saw everything that he had built up in his own quiet, humble way, destroyed by these people he had never met, whom he had offended. All he did was take the bucket and the spade and go over to Auschwitz and come back with the samples, and that was an act of criminal simplicity. He had no idea of what he was blundering into. He wasn't putting his name on the line because he had no name. He came from nowhere and he went back to nowhere.

Dr. James Roth

  • I don't think the Leuchter results have any meaning. There's nothing in any of our data that says those surfaces were exposed or not. Even after I got off the stand, I didn't know where the samples came from. I didn't know which samples were which. And it was only at lunch that I found out, really, what the case involved. Hindsight being 20/20, the test was not the correct one to have been used for the analysis. He presented us with rock samples anywhere from the size of your thumb up to half the size of your fist. We broke them up with a hammer so that we could get a sub-sample; we placed it in a flask, add concentrated sulfuric acid. It undergoes a reaction that produces a red-colored solution. It is the intensity of this red color that we can relate with cyanide concentration. You have to look at what happens to cyanide when it reacts with a wall. Where does it go? How far does it go? Cyanide is a surface reaction. It's probably not going to penetrate more than 10 microns. Human hair is 100 microns in diameter. Crush this sample up, I have just diluted that sample 10,000; 100,000 times. If you're going to go look for it, you're going to look on the surface only. There's no reason to go deep, because it's not going to be there. Which was the exposed surface? I didn't even have any idea. That's like analyzing paint on a wall by analyzing the timber that's behind it.

Shelly Shapiro

  • There is no slippery slope for Mr. Fred Leuchter. The man is an anti-Semite. There are hate-mongers in this country, and he's one of them. He handed over his entire life and reputation to the cause of spreading hatred. He didn't stop, he kept on going. He could've gotten out any time. . . .I don't think he's naive. I think he was empowered by being part of this group. Who is this guy? The bottom line here, is you got a guy who basically made a deal with the devil.


Errol Morris: Have you ever thought that you might be wrong, or do you think that you could make a mistake?
Fred Leuchter: No, I'm past that. When I attempted to turn those facilities into gas execution facilities and was unable to, I made a decision at that point that I wasn't wrong. And perhaps that's why I did it. At least it cleared my mind, so I know that I left no stone unturned. I did everything possible to substantiate and prove the existence of the gas chambers, and I was unable to.

Quotes about Mr. Death

  • Fred Leuchter: What is the film about to you?
    Errol Morris: It's a good question. What it is about is my curiosity--how you got yourself into this fix.
  • It seemed that that audience had no place to stand outside Fred. They became trapped in his ego. They took him quite literally. And when the film was over there were people in the room who wondered whether the Holocaust had really happened.
    • Errol Morris discussing reactions to the film after he screened it to a Harvard film class. Morris subsequently reworked the film, including new footage of Leuchter's critics.
    • Source: The Friendly Executioner by Mark Singer
  • Fred's story raises lots of interesting questions, such as: What happens if you really need to be loved and the only people who will love you are Nazis? And his version of what he saw in Auschwitz and what happened to him afterward seems to come right out of Nabokov--the clueless narrator, the narrator so far out of touch with what he's saying that it's totally absurd. But how clueless could he possibly be? That's the central mystery. Do we all have these self-invented fables? There's a deep mystery about why Fred's doing what he's doing, and for me it connects with the mystery of the Holocaust: the mystery not of whether it happened but of how it could happen. Is it happenstance that Fred, a person obsessed with death-not unlike me-ended up at Auschwitz? Somehow, he was drawn there, pulled to the center of twentieth-century death. And maybe it's pulling me, too. It's one of my predilections that people do not do evil knowingly. Evil is always construed as some form of doing good. We are always in some kind of delusional state about what our actions mean. I hope this movie becomes more effective if Fred emerges as more a person like you and me. If it's a movie that creates one more Manichaean illustration of good and evil, it becomes less interesting. If he becomes a person who makes us think about how the Holocaust came about, then it's useful.
  • Fred hasn't questioned anything we've asked him to do over the last five days. I haven't lied about anything. I haven't had to; he's too honest and decent a man, I look over all this, and I think he's just misguided. He got mixed up with the wrong group of people. There are people who think he's evil, but he's not. The movie, I think, is becoming a kind of odd danse macabre, with Leuchter as my brand of existential hero, or, if you like, existential antihero: the completely benighted human being who still deserves our sympathy.
  • Part of me has very little desire to get into a debate with Ernst Zündel, David Irving, or even Leuchter. I have read a number of reviewers who have taken me to task for not declaring whether I believe Leuchter is a good person or evil person, that somehow I've been remiss in this regard. I beg to differ. The movie is absolutely clear that his ideas are pernicious and false. That is not up for discussion. What is up for discussion is that I wish to put the viewer in the same position for what I find myself in. It's not to give you on a platter a received view but to force you into the mystery of what is in fact very disturbing and peculiar behavior.
  • Very near the end of my work editing the movie, before it was to be shown publicly for the first time, I invited Fred into my studio to look at what I had done, to give him the opportunity at least to see what was going to be put in front of the public and to comment on it. He told me he liked the movie. He felt that the movie had treated his story fairly and responsibly. And then I presented him with my list of reasons why he's wrong, many of which are in the movie itself. The documents, these powerful documents that are in the Auchwitz archive. German documents. Not allied documents, not Jewish documents, NAZI documents. Nazi documents that make specific reference to all of these things Fred said were not there and could not possibly have been there. Fred's answer: I dunno where these documents came from. I can't vouch for their authenticity. I'll just keep my original position.