Reviews Of Forgiving Dr. Mengele And Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/4/11
I recently watched two very different documentaries about the aftermath of Nazi Germany’s policy of genocide against Jews, Gypsies, and other ‘undesirables’ during the Second World War. Most people have termed the genocide things like the holocaust or The Final Solution, but the phrase Nazi Genocide seems a far more apt term, as both the other terms tend to focus almost exclusively on the deaths of Jews (who were about 50% of all people killed in the death camps), while ignoring all the others killed. Ancillary to that is the tendency for the media to overplay the Nazi Genocide vis-à-vis all other earlier and later examples of genocide, including those that killed far more many people and far greater percentages, overall, of the people that were set out to be killed by the genocidalists. I get this out of the way, early, simply because both films deal with controversial aspects of the Nazi Genocide; the first film with a victim’s crusade to forgive her oppressors and the second with a patsy’s blundering in to try and exonerate some of the crimes committed. The problems both films faced is that, even to this day, there are genuine and myriad controversies regarding genocide, in general (see the denial of the Armenian genocide), and the Nazi Genocide, particularly.
As example, the first film, Forgiving Dr. Mengele, deals with Jewish survivor guilt, and whether or not the Nazi Genocide was a unique crime against humanity. Clearly, it was not unique, merely one amongst hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of such barbarism that litter human history. It was one of the largest and most well organized, but unique? Clearly not, as even the term ‘concentration camp’ did not originate in Nazi Germany. The second film, Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., deals with an earnest but lonely man who becomes an unwitting accomplice to the silly spectacle of Holocaust Denial, practiced by Anti-Semites ever since the world’s documentation of the death camps at the close of the European Theater.
Yet, both films show the equally unwitting role that many Jewish groups have in perpetuating Anti-Semitism. In the first film, the sense of bizarre entitlement to suffering shown by groups devoted to keeping the Holocaust’s memory going, has alienated many other groups who might be allies; in America alone blacks, who suffered an even longer and more brutal campaign of slavery and genocide, one which went on for centuries, not just a decade, and across the New World, are amongst the groups where Anti-Semitism sees its highest levels, mainly because of the insistence of many Jewish groups that their suffering and pain is ‘unique.’ The second film displays this insane form of self-loathing even more starkly, as the film’ subject, one Fred Leuchter, an expert on humane capital punishment techniques, is hired by a Holocaust Denier to gather evidence at Auschwitz that there were never any gas chambers, does so, and speaks out against the ‘myth’ of mass gassing. It’s clear, from the film’s own interviews with other experts, that Leuchter was far out of his league, but so stuck on his ego’s being stroked by being named an ‘expert,’ that he was played for a patsy- possibly the biggest one since Lee Harvey Oswald. Yet, this poor, deluded soul finds his life and livelihood utterly destroyed by mean-spirited members of Jewish political groups that the rashness and harshness of their denunciations actually makes the Holocaust Deniers seem the more reasonable lot, and the Jewish groups paranoid and fearful of some ‘secret’ being revealed.
Forgiving Dr. Mengele is an 80 minute long 2006 film by Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh, which follows several years in the life of Eva Mozes Kor, one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s twin experiment subjects. Through the film we see the usual death camp images, those of Eva and her twin sister Miriam’s youth after the war, and we follow her life chronologically into the 1990s, where she sees her sister die, due to complications from the Mengele experiments, which had forced Eva to donate one of her kidneys to Eva decades earlier. Unfortunately, the fact that the film focuses so intensely on Kor detracts from its ability to deal with larger issues. Also, despite the generous presentation of Kor, the fact is that she is not a particularly deep, interesting, nor even nice person. At least in what is presented in the film. She champions the doctrine of unilateral forgiveness for the Nazis, even as she belittles many other of the victims who cannot do it. In a near-perfect world one would hope that Kor would see not only how self-serving her claims and actions are, but also how damaging it is to the notion that perpetrators of crimes be held accountable for those crimes (the second film actually proves that need). Her own needs (psychological, spiritual, mental) seem to trump others, and even seem to be directed by a need for the limelight. After all, this is a woman who, prior to becoming an outspoken advocate of her position, was but a licensed realtor. I.e.- she had accomplished nothing grand, even as she burned over the injustices she suffered as a child. It seems rather obvious that one of the forces driving her is a need to be famed and respected and well known and real estate just was not the place to get that. So, she goes on her crusade, gains notoriety, visits death camps, lectures to children, opens her own Holocaust museum (which is torched and rebuilt), spars with less forgiving Holocaust victims, and even publicly forgives a Nazi doctor named Munch (a rather hollow gesture since he was legally exonerated of war crimes in the tribunals following the war).
But, then we get to see some of Kor’s less martyr-like side. On one of her many trips to Israel, she is invited to a congress with Palestinians, to hear their grievances, and this is where we see that many of her claims ring false and hollow, for, as a supporter of the oppressive Israeli regime (one that is nowhere as bad as the Nazis, but still has committed countless atrocities and murders, equal to or surpassing those committed against them) she not only displays no empathy for the Palestinians (her body language betrays her declarations) but insinuates that they are not honest in what they say.
Overall, while Forgiving Dr. Mengele tries to champion her as a force for good it unwittingly shows her to be a hypocrite whose motives can legitimately be questioned by both Jews and Arabs.
The motives of Fred Leuchter are a bit more transparent than those of Kor. His problem (other than the fact that he comes off as a typical monomaniacal nerd- albeit with a penchant for killing people) is not in a lack in his soul but in a lack of intelligence (humorously displayed when Leuchter admits to smoking six packs of cigarets a day and downing forty cups of coffee, as well). As Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. opens we get several actually brilliant monologues on the need for humanity in criminal punishment that seem to establish the intellectual bona fides of Leuchter (especially the one wherein he speaks of the prison staff that, after years of getting to know a prisoner, have to execute that person). That many critics have mocked Leuchter’s claims in this area shows their inhumanity, not any lack on Leuchter’s part.
Then, about a third of the way in to the 90 minute film by noted documentarian Errol Morris, all of the sympathy the viewer builds up for Leuchter is drained away when we see him riding his own ego-stroke (not any bigotry) into career suicide by defending a Holocaust Denier, Ernst Zundel, with ‘scientific’ and forensic techniques that even laymen can see are absurd. That the film has a forensic lab expert go into an extensive debunking of Leuchter’s failures seems almost unnecessary, but it effectively does one thing: it also debunks those who claim Leuchter is a bigot. A fool? Yes. An egoist? Yes. But a bigot? Absolutely not. It also does one other thing; it builds back some of the initial sympathy the viewer feels for Leuchter because he seems to have been mowed down by what Norman Finkelstein calls the Holocaust, Inc. crowd (his marriage and career were sabotaged by the harassment of these folks)- i.e.- those people who profit personally and financially by keeping alive the idea that the Nazi Genocide was some aberration in the human heart and psyche rather than a sadly predictable event, given the nature of World War Two- human history’s worst mass slaughter. Holocaust Inc. is the flip side of the same sick coin the Holocaust Deniers occupy, and to see the dimwitted Lechter buffeted about by these two extremist groups is almost dizzying, and it’s little wonder that Leuchter has faded from public view after the release of this film in 1999.
Interestingly, as clueless as Lechter is portrayed, it seems that Morris was equally clueless over how the film would be viewed. Initially, many people felt the film supported Holocaust Denial, so Morris had to go back and re-edit the film to make clear that the film viewed Leuchter as an unwitting dupe, but in doing so, he also made unwittingly clearer the role the Holocaust Inc. types have in warping the historical realities of World War Two, and how those types actually need the Holocaust Deniers, lest all their revenue sources would dry up. Compared to Forgiving Dr. Mengele, Mr. Death is a visually virtuoso film, from its stunning opening credits to its assorted escapades with Leuchter, to its showing of Thomas Edison’s infamous film depicting the barbaric electrocution of an elephant which had been tortured by one of its masters and killed him in revenge, and on and on. It is also a great film and documentary. Leuchter is shown in all his glory and ridiculousness, whereas Eva Kor is barely revealed at all.
Kor is, at the end of Forgiving Dr. Mengele, as at its beginning, almost a stereotype. And this is shown because nowhere in the film does Kor ever show a hint of insight into her own prejudices, while Leuchter, as flawed as he is by his own overweening pride in his work (as well as a belief in the Fallacy of the Pan-Genius- i.e.- someone great in one area of life being great in all areas of life), at least understands his limits, for early on, when asked why he was hired to build a lethal injection device for New Jersey, when he had no expertise in that area, admits it was because the bureaucrats figured expertise in electric chairs meant he had to be an expert in all forms of death. The anecdote of a New Jersey commissioner giving him a contract once he learned leuchter built the Tennessee electric chair is priceless because it so avidly and manifestly displays the idiocy of most bureaucrats’ mindsets. Such insights abound in Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. No such insights can be found in Forgiving Dr. Mengele. That does not mean it should not be viewed, but it does mean Mr. Death should not be missed.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]
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