Nobody seems to be able to pick out a more unique premise for a documentary than filmmaker Errol Morris. I hadn’t seen any of his films prior to watching The Thin Blue Line in 2022. The 1980s true crime documentary made me an instant fan. His style of filmmaking is so basic and simple. It starts with the subject matter.
In Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., we get another one of those stories. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of tale involving a guy who helped reinvent the electric chair and how he got entangled into the world of Holocaust denial.
What was good about Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.
Morris starts with some background about the main character in this documentary, Leuchter. He was a prominent figure in updating death devices for prisons, notably the electric chair. Also well-informed on things like the gas chamber and lethal injection machines, Fred was the go-to source for killing people.
Not too many people have this reputation in a legal sense. But that’s who Leuchter was for many years. It’s such a strange world to enter. Morris paints it beautifully. He shows us a bit of Fred’s personal life and how a person in this position interacts with others.
The documentary takes a bigger twist and serves a greater purpose when Leuchter is sent to Auschwitz on behalf of Ernst Zundel, a noted Holocaust denier on trial in Canada for publishing information that presidents and NBA stars today would get away with. Zundel wants Leuchter to determine if there is any evidence at all if the Auschwitz gas chambers were used to kill death camp prisoners. Leuchter’s takeaway: there is no evidence.
Through his faulty science, as the film easily explains, Leuchter becomes the defender of a Holocaust denier. The story of Mr. Death is topnotch. Unfortunately, it did have a few points taken off.
What could have made Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. better
This was the kind of documentary we needed multiple parts of. I could see it being made today and having at least two, if not three or more, episodes. Coming out in 1999 as this film did, documentaries weren’t nearly as popular. The possibility of a docu-series wasn’t in the cards.
Even while accepting this, I felt like Mr. Death didn’t quite touch on every point. Zendel and his background is glossed over. Mr. Death has a decent runtime but there’s a lot missing.
Morris doesn’t present the film with the same kinds of modern twists we see in documentaries of all kinds these days. It’s fine. This isn’t a problem I have with the documentary.
Instead, it’s the lack of information. The documentary gives only the most basic parts of this tale before, during, and after Leuchter’s trip to Poland. I didn’t feel like I knew enough about him at the end or what came after he was essentially blacklisted from the industry.
Simplicity has worked for Morris’ films in the past. In Mr. Death, a harder push and longer runtime would have made this much more exceptional.
Is Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. worth watching?
Despite my gripes, this film didn’t scare me off of catching up on more of Morris’ films. It’s a worthy watch that may work best if we don’t compare it to other documentaries.
There are some potentially colorful characters we don’t get to know enough of. Nothing about this documentary had to be fun or funny. It simply needed to get a little weirder. People so stubborn about their false beliefs make for good documentary fodder. Morris knows this and I would have liked to see much more.
Overall Score: 6 out of 10
Irreverence is a trademark in many of Morris’ films. I’ll be watching more of them even if the subject matter is lighter. Mr. Death could’ve been better. It had the best director it could to make it work.