Film Review: Denial

Denial refers to what David Irving was accused by Deborah Lipstadt of doing to the Holocaust.  That said, Denial also refers to an unorthodox legal strategy cooked up by the dream team of Anthony Julius, James Libson, and Richard Ramport with which to battle Irving.  It is this strategy that is the focus of this wonderful account of the infamous libel trial that all but stripped away the lies of Holocaust denial promulgated by the likes of bigots such as Irving.

Denial is not only an excellent film that should be seen by as many people as possible.  It is also the most necessary film in this election season, which has seen assaults on the memory and historical record like no other.  Many of these assaults are a result of the rise from the sewers of the worst antisemitism (from the right and left) in my memory.  The story of Denial is the story of a discovery of how such assaults are perpetrated and what it takes to combat them.

A bit of background: Deborah Lipstadt is a Professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University.  In 1993, she wrote a book called Denying the Holocaust in which she identified David Irving as someone who twisted historical truth to fit his own bigoted assumptions.  Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel in British court.  Because the suit was in Britain, the defendant Lipstadt was required to prove that her statements were true.

Lipstadt took on her counsel through various recommendations.  They are counted among the premier legal minds in Britain.  Julius and his colleagues recognized that Irving relished a chance to publicly humiliate Lipstadt and any survivors that might take the witness stand during the trial.  So, while lesser minds might have allowed Lipstadt and survivors to be harangued by Irving, Julius et al were having none if it.  Lipstadt and everyone else were to be denied to Irving throughout the trial so that the focus would be on Irving and his misdeeds.  Lipstadt had a hard time with this, but eventually saw that it was indeed a winning strategy.

The film pretty much follows the book History On Trial, written by Lipstadt.  Lipstadt herself is played by Rachel Weisz, an excellent actress in her best role since The Constant Gardener.  The British actress nails the mannerisms of a strong, intelligent, and passionate woman from Queens who is being told that her speaking out will harm her case.  She reminds me of Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger – always in pain, using jogs through a city to manage it.

(Actually, I think it relevant to say here that both Sullenberger and Lipstadt are American heroes: Sullenberger for saving every life aboard the plane he landed in a freezing Hudson river and for pushing aviation safety and Lipstadt for enduring a public trial so that the memory of millions of lives are remembered properly, as well as for maintaining the fight against their constant smears.)

The supporting cast is excellent but I want to acknowledge two standouts.  First, Tom Wilkinson as Richard Ramport QC is, no surprise, amazing at communicating to us through his body language and facial expressions the complexities of performing investigative work under such an emotional cloud.  Lipstadt mistakenly thinks he is being rude and heartless while they are working in Auschwitz.  She couldn’t have been more wrong; his heart was breaking, not only for what happened, but for his recognition that had he been there, he would have done nothing to stop it.  Wilkinson adroitly gets this across in the manner of a gruff barrister.  His character is a human being first, and that’s why he will win this case for Lipstadt.

The surprise standout is Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius.  Scott played “C” in Spectre and I thought was over the top.  I now see the reason for that was the slipshod writing and not his acting.  Scott perfectly captured the intense passion that Julius felt about this case and how that led to the denial strategy that completely went against his client’s thinking.  I have read Julius’s book, Trials of the Diaspora, and know of his commitment to fighting antisemitism in British culture.  When Lipstadt accuses Julius of being insensitive to the needs of survivors to tell their story during a trial that will surely affect them, Julius overcomes his British reserve and reacts accordingly.  In a moving scene, he angrily marches Lipstadt over to a television, pops in a cassette, and makes her watch David Irving mock and humiliate another survivor.  “Is THIS what you want?  You think this will help us?”  I loved this performance.

The heart of the movie lies in the deconstruction of Irving’s arguments that the facts of history favor his interpretations and that Lipstadt and some cabal are working to discredit him as a historian.  It is really amazing to see, time after time, how Irving made minor modifications to translations from German: a singular to a plural, leaving out a critical word or two, to suit his needs.  When he argues to the judge that, hey, aren’t I allowed to make mistakes, Ramport, with the help of historian Richard Evans and his staff, was able to show that all of Irving’s “mistakes” favored the Nazis, a statistical anomaly if there ever was one.

Irving was dangerous because he knew how to play to the masses.  He loved slogans.  “No holes, no Holocaust!” played in the papers for a while and was devastating to the public perception of the case.  The holes referred to the columns drilled through the roof of the gas chamber through which the Zyklon B pellets were dropped.  Although the expert, Robert Jan van Pelt, had plans showing the columns and holes as well as simulations based on testimony from a sonderkommando, Irving was able to cast doubt based on photographs he had obtained.  Because Irving skillfully waited until the end of the day to sow this seed, he was able to get the quip into the press in time for the evening paper.

Fortunately for history and very unfortunately for Irving, the truth revealed Irving to be a liar.  His photograph was misdated (he claimed it was fresh evidence when in fact it was years old) and Ramport was able to produce further evidence that the columns existed and that the holes were exactly were where van Pelt said they were.  The evidence of course came from the Nazis themselves.  Irving had of course mistranslated everything in his own favor.

Another telling scene is toward the beginning when Julius is with the judge, Charles Gray (a dour and rather forgettable performance, perhaps due to the character rather than the acting).  Julius is about to explain that he would prefer there to be no jury, just the judge.  Judge Gray asks Julius if they have gotten Irving’s agreement.  Irving, who is seated right beside Julius, looks on quizzically.  Why on earth should he give up the chance to rant to a jury?  Because, Julius says, Irving, as he has pointed out on numerous occasions, has been a historian for 30 years.  One cannot expect a mere layman to comprehend the complexities mastered by Irving over all of those years.  Only a learned judge will be able to keep up with the case.  His ego having thus been stroked, Irving agrees enthusiastically, to his detriment.

Timothy Spall plays Irving with the pathos of someone who seeks public approval for everything he believes.  Even when he is defeated, he seeks Ramport’s approval.  (It never comes; Ramport is determined to never even look directly at Irving.)  There are hints of more: he is shown to be a doting father to a young daughter.  (A fact that horrifies the young solicitors on the team as they seek documents from Irving for discovery.  We learn later what he is teaching this girl.)  It is briefly mentioned that he lost an adult daughter.  One wonders whether this loss has had anything to do with his motivations.  Irving, as much contempt as I must have for him and I certainly have zero sympathy for the things that have happened to him as a result of the trial (bankruptcy, humiliation, inability to publish, etc.) as he has brought that on himself, I cannot overlook the fact that he is still a human being and registers hurt and that hurt must affect his actions.

I say all this because Denial is so timely.  Why on earth are people flocking to the alt-right and Trump despite the obvious lies and conspiracies that form the basis of their actions?  These lies make for effective weapons with those people for whom history has little to offer.  There is a nice little scene involving a junior member of Lipstadt’s team up at night listening to some testimony.  Her partner awakes from bed and angrily accuses her of obsessing over something of little importance.  That person is exactly why we have Trump: because to many people historical truth is inconvenient and gets in the way.

The film is not quite perfect.  It leaves out a bunch of principals, including Holocaust historian Peter Longerich, and minimizes Penguin’s involvement.  It gives the impression that Irving was all alone when he in fact had antisemitic supporters testify for him.  And it overdramatizes the old British v American way of doing things.  (You know, British stiff upper lip v. American wear it on your sleeve.  Never saw that before, said nobody ever.)  If you want more of that, see A Fish Called Wanda.

Otherwise, make sure you see this movie before the election.  It is that important.