Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leutcher Jr.
dr. errol morris
Fred A. Leutcher is an odd looking fellow, bug eyed, yellow stains from the two packs of cigarettes he smokes a day covering his teeth. He always seems to smile at the wrong time, at the closing of some supposedly serious point. He'll catch a humorous angle we've missed or he'll fail to see the weight of the issue, and his face will glow insanely for the briefest second before settling to something approaching normality. It's this face of just-slightly-off-centre "everydayness" which will ultimately be exploited when Leutcher naively accepts a research mission to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, leading to his wrong-headed (if that word is strong enough) hypothesis that the Holocaust never occurred. Once known as a humanitarian (in a roundabout way) he will lose everything as he sticks to his story.

There's only one question you ask as the film unwinds before your eyes: can he really be that naive, that unaware of the implications of his "research"? At times it seems like Leutcher is the devastating flip-side of a joyous Gumpesque "ignorance is bliss" philosophy, an unwillingness to take personal responsibility which leads to every facet of his life being torn apart. For him it was all a job, and it took him under. Almost shockingly ignorant of a larger world revolving around him, the world bites back at one man who goes about his work with a banal and highly unnerving affability.

Errol Morris is not your standard documentarian. There are no bleached out colours and endless reels of chair-bound witnesses in his cinema. Employing highly stylised recreations and glowing dream-states (often shot in a radiant blue) he plays back the high points and personal dreams of his visionary / deluded characters, those shadows and drops of water in glaring colour, everyday reflections blown up as grand and hypnotic gestures. His characters are lost in reverie, but at the edge of that pleasant and (supposedly) harmless goofiness is something a little sad, a threat, what an unorthodox connection with the world can do to a man who lives outside an accepted train of thought. In Morris' last film Fast, Cheap and Out of Control these eccentrics were celebrated; in this film the daydreamer is punished for his head-in-the-clouds nature. Morris shows us what the eccentric misses out on while lost in their sleep.

There is a emptiness at the core of the film which is disturbing, an absence that can leave you wanting more on first viewing. Leutcher is a blank slate and he was taken for a ride; that's the only conclusion you can make from the film. There's no over-riding grand vision courtesy supplied by Morris, and there's no suggestion of justice sought or obtained by anyone involved. The film just starts and stops, like Leutcher getting up in the morning and going about his detailed work of mass death and misery with the face of a non-plussed witness. This anomie makes Mr. Death a great film, but a hard one to enjoy, and Morris' bleakest work to date.

Adam Rivett
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