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by Scott Macaulay
The following interview of Errol Morris originally appeared in Filmmaker‘s Fall, 1998 issue.
Fred - A - Leuchter - Engineer - Massachusetts
In 1988, Fred A. Leuchter, an engineer from Massachusetts who made a living designing more “humane” electric chairs, was hired by Ernst Zundel, the publisher of several pro-Hitler, Holocaust-denying tracts, to conduct a forensic investigation into the use of poison gas in Nazi concentration camps. On his honeymoon, Leuchter travelled to Auschwitz and, with his wife sitting in the car reading Agatha Christie novels, illegally chipped away at the brick, collecting mortar samples which he transported back to the States. Testing these samples for traces of cyanide gas, Leuchter “proved” that the Holocaust never occurred. Taking these findings, Zundel published The Leuchter Report, which sold millions of copies around the world, and was later tried, in Canada, of disseminating “false history.” Leuchter, of course, was the main witness for the defense, and at the trial his callously sloppy science was thoroughly discredited. In the process, Leuchter lost his wife, his reputation, but not, as Morris shows us in his philosophically probing and horrifyingly funny documentary Mr. Death, his plucky American “can-do” attitude.
Fred Leuchter is the latest in a long line of American originals framed by the amiably merciless camera of Errol Morris. His first film, Gates of Heaven, comprised heavily of talking head interviews, is a classic portrayal of two feuding pet cemetery owners that resonated on social, political and economic levels. His 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line, blended interviews with dramatic re-enactments and surreal visual flourishes to solve the mystery of a small town murder. And, in 1997, Morris made Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, a tremendously moving portrait of four obsessed individuals whose singular pursuits Morris merges into a visually stunning meditation on death and mortality. His latest, Mr. Death, an...
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