PG-13, 1 hour, 50 minutes
Directed by Mick Jackson, with Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall
Following the surrender of Nazi Germany, a parade of SS officers testified before an international tribunal and described the details of their systematic plan to eradicate European Jewry. No story was more astonishing than the candid testimony of Rudolph Hoess, the commander of Auschwitz. He provided an international assembly of judges, reporters and witnesses the chilling details of how two million Jews had been murdered under his watchful eye. He suppressed some pride in the efficiency with which he carried out Adolph Eichmann’s orders. With these eyewitness accounts along with the confession of the chief executioner, how is it that the reality of the Holocaust is still being debated in the courts of public opinion today?
That is the question Denial (2016) asks. Denial is an adaptation by David Hare of Deborah Lipstadt’s book, Holocaust History on Trial (2005). The film follows the case of Irving v. Lipstadt (1996), in which British scholar David Irving (Timothy Spall) charged Emory University history professor Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and Penguin Publishers with public defamation. In Irving’s book, Hitler’s War (1977), he minimized the extent of the Holocaust, denied that six million Jews were murdered, alleged that Hitler tried to save the Jews, and denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. Lipstadt described Irving as a racist and Holocaust denier. Irving responded with a libel suit in a London court.1
The case was not intended to retry the evidence for the Holocaust. Those facts had been established at Nuremberg (1946) by the written and oral testimonies of survivors and through the international trial of Adolph Eichmann (1961). The case intended to ask if Lipstadt and Penguin had wrongly libeled Irving, or if Lipstadt had accurately described him as a racist and Holocaust denier. However, in a British libel case, it is the job of the defendant to prove their accusation is true. Lipstadt’s legal team had to show that the Holocaust truly did happen, that it transpired on the scale traditionally accepted, and that Irving intentionally falsified information in his effort to distort the extent and meaning of the tragedy. Moreover, Lipstadt’s team had to demonstrate that Irving knowingly falsified information in his book and that he was racially motivated to do so. They had to show he knew what he was doing and why he was doing it.
In Denial, Lipstadt travels to London and enlists the legal help of Anthony Julius, smartly portrayed by Andrew Scott, and Richard Rampton, brilliantly played by Tom Wilkinson. Arriving in England, Lipstadt, a brash Jewish New Yorker, is advised that in a British court her moral passion would sink their case by giving Irving the opportunity to grandstand. She was therefore asked not to testify. Feeling stifled, Lipstadt attempts to allow survivors to testify, which would bring them moral satisfaction. Once again she is stonewalled. Julius explains that the purpose of the case is not to satisfy Lipstadt’s thirst for righteous indignation or to provide emotional therapy for the survivors. The goal is to discredit Irving. Moreover, survivors suffered enough in their lifetime and do not need to be publicly humiliated by Irving. In order to win the case, they need to focus squarely on Irving and his writings, and, in doing so, allow him to discredit himself.
Weisz captures Lipstadt’s brash spirit and moral passion, a crusading New Yorker who wants to take on international anti-Semitism on behalf of her Jewish people. Spall convincingly carries himself as the overly confident showman, energized by media attention, having just enough scholarship to appear snooty, whose ego slowly deflates over the course of the case as his true agenda is exposed. The director frames scenes and camera perspectives in London that reveal voluminous halls, towering statues and ancient stone structures that dwarf Lipstadt, who seems to be wondering what she got herself into. She is a gefilte fish out of its brine. There is a very moving scene in Auschwitz where Lipstadt and her colleagues experience the grief that seems to still radiate from the camp’s ruins, while we hear in the background the faint cries of those long dead.
The film had a few weaknesses. There was almost no mention of Penguin Books, who were partners in the defense team. We know very little of Lipstadt outside of this story and even less of the other members of her legal team. And there were a few too many scenes of Lipstadt moralizing about her crusade. I was disappointed that the film had such a limited release. It appeared first in New York and Los Angeles and then in a handful of theaters around the country. On its opening, Saturday night, our theater was half empty.
Denial (2016) asks the difficult question, is Holocaust denial protected speech? Is a lie protected speech? With the democratization of information courtesy of the Internet, and the globalization of speech, courtesy of international news and digital media, minority voices have been granted equal status with those of scholars, historians and national leaders. Is there any justification for dishonest and inflammatory speech? Can someone stand in a movie theater and shout, “Fire!”? In the film, Lipstadt explains, “I’m not attacking freedom of speech. I’ve been defending my right against someone who wants to pervert the truth….You can say whatever you want. What you can’t do is lie and expect not to be accountable for it.”
Finally, Denial reminds us that we are held accountable for what we believe. Belief is never neutral or relative. While we may think of the adage, “History is written by the victors,” history should be a record of objective truth. Truth is independent of our opinions. Those who distort historic or spiritual truth are morally accountable for their actions and beliefs. Those who deny historic truth are destined to repeat it, leaving the rest of us to try atrocities like the Holocaust again in the courts of public opinion.
-reviewed by Stan Meyer