The perversion of historical fact according to one’s private agenda is at the heart of Denial. This fact-based courtroom drama revolves around the legal battle between Jewish-American professor and historian Deborah Lipstadt, and her nemesis, David Irving, a British so-called historian famous for denying that the Holocaust—Hitler’s extermination of six million Jews in death camps like Auschwitz—ever happened.
Adapted for the screen by veteran playwright David Hare from Lipstadt’s book about the trial, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, the film is directed by Mick Jackson with an eye toward its larger themes—the rise of demagoguery, the issue of free speech and the arcane pathways of legal procedure. It also invites us to examine the relationship of verifiable truth to its opposite—a very timely topic in this campaign season.
The ever-luminous Rachel Weisz tones down the glam and amps up the moxie to play Deborah Lipstadt, a feisty native of Queens, New York, who lectures on history at prestigious Emory University in Atlanta. An author who specializes in Holocaust history, Lipstadt is at the podium one night in 1994 at an event for her new book, Denying The Holocaust, when she’s heckled from the audience by David Irving (Timothy Spall)—a well-known apologist for Nazi Germany and darling of skinheads and neo-Nazis—who flamboyantly offers a thousand dollars to anyone who can prove the Holocaust happened.
Lipstadt has already cited Irving in her book as a dangerous denier of facts. But what starts out as only a passing disturbance at her book event turns into something much larger when Irving sues Lipstadt’s British publisher, Penguin London, for libel. Off she goes to London to confer with her legal team. Solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, and yes, you recognize him as Jim Moriarty in the Sherlock TV series) prepares the case, but Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) is the veteran barrister who argues it in court.
Unlike in the States, where the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty, in the U.K., it’s up to the defendant to disprove the plaintiff’s claim. Her lawyers opt for “the Atom Bomb Defense”—to prove that Lipstadt’s “libelous” statements are, in fact, true. It’s no secret that Irving denies the Holocaust as historical fact; what Lipstadt’s team has to prove is far more slippery—that Irving has deliberately falsified facts he knows to be true in order to further his own reputation.
To complicate matters, Irving acts as his own barrister, arguing his own case in the courtroom, and happily grandstanding for the press every day outside. Lipstadt, meanwhile, is advised by her team to remain silent throughout the proceedings, and to never speak to the press—a difficult task for someone who understands that the first duty of any citizen to prevent a second Holocaust is to speak out. This becomes even harder for her to bear when she learns that her defense team will not call any actual Holocaust survivors to the witness stand.
Apparently, in the actual trial, a number of expert witnesses testified on behalf of the defense that the Holocaust was a proven historical fact. None of this testimony appears in the film. Hare and Jackson assume their audience already knows the Holocaust happened. Instead, they focus their courtroom drama on the battle of wits and wills between Irving, smug in the fabrications for which he seeks such public validation, and incisive barrister Rampton, searching for the weakest chinks in Irving’s armor of lies to slip in the sword of truth.
This may not read like the most dynamic set-up for onscreen drama. But the collision of the civil right of free speech with the willful spreading of racist, hate-mongering falsehoods for political gain has a particular resonance right now, in reference to a certain presidential nominee (aka He Who Must Not Be Named—especially by me). The similarities are both fascinating and appalling, lending Denial an extra layer of timeliness, while reminding the audience that truth and vigilance are our best defense against repeating the worst mistakes of the past.
*** (out of four)
Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, & Tom Wilkinson
Written by David Hare. From the book ‘Denial: Holocaust History on Trial’ by Deborah E. Lipstadt. Directed by Mick Jackson. A Bleecker Street release. Rated PG-13. 110 minutes.