Every week, Indiewire chief film critic Eric Kohn singles out a movie available for free streaming from our parent company SnagFilms’ library and tells you why you should watch it now.
It was appropriate that “The Act of Killing,” last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary about the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide, was executive produced by Errol Morris. Just as that movie involved its director coaching performances out of his subjects to capture their essence, Morris has excelled at pointing his camera at various eccentrics and transforming them into cinematic characters. And like “The Act of Killing” director Joshua Oppenheimer, Morris never shies away from morally complex topics and the contemptible people wrapped up in them. His Oscar-winning “The Fog of War” put the spotlight on the inner demons of Robert McNamara, while “The Unknown Known” —which opens theatrically today—similarly magnifies the misdeeds of Donald Rumsfeld. In both movies, Morris speaks to his subjects off-camera, while they stare directly at the audience, implicating them in their rambling self-analysis.
If you haven’t seen those movies and want to get a sense for Morris’ uniquely confrontational technique, look no further than “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter.” Morris’ 1999 documentary about the eponymous execution technician. More than any of Morris’ other subjects, Leuchter is a chilling figure: a coffee-guzzling consultant on execution methods who smokes 20 packs a cigarettes a day, Leuchter’s career took a dark turn even by his standards, when he speculated that no poison gas was used at Auschwitz, which led to accusations of Holocaust denial that permanently ruined his career.
In addition to capturing Leuchter’s perspective on the proceedings through his hauntingly focused gaze, the filmmaker shows the executioner admiring his work with the electric chair and investigating the remnants of the concentration camp in footage that makes it increasingly difficult to tolerate his presence. And yet, paradoxically, Leuchter is such a fascinatingly morbid creature that you just can’t look away. Instead of turning Leuchter into a monster, his obliviousness that takes center stage: Whether or not he denied the Holocaust or simply became lost in the maze of his own bizarre subjectivity is constantly in question; similarly, his seeming lack of guilt or discomfort over the thousands of deaths that resulted from his inventions suggest that he has a uniquely off-kilter relationship to the world. Rather than shaking his finger, Morris simply presents his subject in the same creepy realm of uncertainty in which he sees himself.
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