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"Dr. Death"

"Mr. Death" offers up the geekiness of evil.

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It's impossible to describe Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the subject of Errol Morris's new nonfiction film Mr. Death, without invoking the word geeky. He looks like Toad, the character Charlie Martin Smith played in American Graffiti, brought into middle age. Leuchter, who had a thriving Massachusetts-based business designing more "humane" electric chairs and lethal-injection systems, unwittingly initiated his own downfall when he prepared a report for the defense of a neo-Nazi on trial in Toronto alleging that, upon inspection, Auschwitz and Birkenau were not the sites of any gas executions. (The judge refused to allow the report into evidence.) Leuchter represents the banality of banality, and one may perhaps be forgiven for feeling that Morris made him up altogether: This death-obsessed dweeb, who drinks 40 cups of coffee and smokes six packs of cigarettes a day, is such a perfect Errol Morris person that it's as if Leuchter's entire life were a clarion call for the filmmaker's attentions. But perhaps Leuchter is too perfect for Morris. Having found him, the director doesn't quite know what to do with him; the camera brings Leuchter up close, and the effect is a bit like staring at a big-screen bug in The Hellstrom Chronicle. Morris is trusting that the man's blank affableness will eerily resonate, but the only revelation I got is just further confirmation that creeps do indeed walk among us. Clearly Morris wants us to see a bit of ourselves in Leuchter and, in so doing, admit that the Holocaust was perpetuated not by monsters but by duped, deluded ordinary types. But Morris's idea of ordinary isn't necessarily yours or mine. Leuchter is too singular to be anybody's Everyman -- even Morris's.


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