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Documentary about Fred Leuchter, an engineer who became an expert on execution devices and was later hired by revisionist historian Ernst Zundel to "prove" that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Leuchter published a controversial report confirming Zundel's position, which ultimately ruined his own career. Most of the footage is of Leuchter, puttering around execution facilities or chipping away at the walls of Auschwitz, but Morris also interviews various historians, associates, and neighbors. Written by
It's not what I found, but what I didn't find that blew me away.
This documentary presents the story of the rise and fall of Fred Leuchter, an apparently self-taught engineer specializing in the repair and fabrication of instruments of capital punishment. His choice to develop evidence to deny the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz, Poland causes a descent into villainy and subsequent ostracism from his clients and his wife.
Several of Leuchter's detractors are interviewed in the film and vilify him as an anti-Semite and a perpetrator of a cruel hoax. His supporters portray him as the second coming of Christ and a man worthy of equal footing with George Washington. If Leuchter actually was aware of his place in the events that led to his downfall, then one could assume he falls somewhere between the two extremes. But this film amply demonstrates that in many ways, Fred in a class by himself.
This little man from Massachusetts grew up around the prison where his father worked, and he saw the daily life of both inmates and guards. He came to see both groups as his friends, and later in his life he chose to research ways to make execution equipment safer and more humane, not only for the inmates being executed, but also for the guards that have to deal with the psychologically disturbing business of execution.
Over time, he became prominent in his field, and was recognized as perhaps the only expert in the United States on repairing and building execution devices. It was this expertise that drew the attention of holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, who was on trial in Canada for publishing a document entitled "Did Six Million Really Die?", which the government of Canada argued was published with deliberate lies about Nazi execution of Jews. Leuchter was approached as an expert on execution and was asked to journey to Auschwitz to develop evidence to disprove that the crematories at that most infamous of concentration camps was used as execution chambers.
It is here that the mystery of Fred Leuchter begins. In the film, a holocaust denier relates a conversation he had with Leuchter in which he had asked Fred about his illegal and highly distasteful excavations at Auschwitz. Leuchter replied, "It wasn't what I found, but what I didn't find that blew me away." It is this statement that rings in my head when I try to examine Fred Leuchter's actions. Why didn't he think about what was being asked of him? Why didn't he see this inquiry in the larger scale of the history of the Second World War, and indeed in the history of civilization? Since he was so deliberate and so thoughtful in his research in to execution equipment, why did he not research the subject of the gas chambers at Auschwitz more thoroughly? Journalist Van Pelt explains that all he had to do was examine the archives at the camp to discover a wealth of information that the Nazis put together about the subject of the "gassing basements". Leuchter obviously understood nothing about the subject of chemistry (an absolutely necessary discipline to begin addressing the presence of cyanide on the bricks of the camp), and yet he took the job of disproving the existence of gas chambers. Why?
This is the area where Errol Morris' skill as a documentarian really shines. He shows Fred lurching around at various white supremacist meetings to discuss the findings of his report, apparently unaware of agenda he was sent to justify. As a thoughtful and deliberate man, he came to the conclusion that the chambers at Auschwitz could not have been used as execution chambers, but obviously uses his own narrow view point to reach that conclusion, since (in his opinion) if he had designed such a device for mass execution he would not have built it that way. He doesn't understand that he was pushed to present a certain result, and that the individuals that wanted justification for their viewpoints were not to be trusted. Morris lets us see all the swirling action around Leuchter, and demonstrates that Leuchter himself was unable or unwilling to see his place in the madness surrounding the trial, as well as demonstrating that Fred couldn't fully understand why state governments were suddenly unwilling to deal with him, killing his business as an execution engineer.
Leuchter's detractors took pains to ruin his life which, in a country that thrives on free speech and the open expression of ideas, is as shameful an act as Leuchter's own foolish holocaust denial. But an interviewee stated eloquently in the film that Fred had the chance to retract his statements. Fred at any time could have limited his involvement with the project. He should have conducted his investigation in the full light of day rather than slinking around a vitally important historical site, chopping up pieces of what many consider a holy shine to the lives of those callously murdered there. He could have done many things that any rational and considerate person should have done.
But he didn't.
Morris' film is one of the best examinations of a person's life committed to film. Highly recommended.
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