In 1996, the historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, her publisher, were sued in the UK courts by the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving for calling him a falsifier of history in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. In Denial, David Hare has written a version of those events for a film directed by Mick Jackson and starring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Timothy Spall as Irving.
Could any film be more well-timed? Unfortunately, despite having good moments, Denial proved to be something of a disappointment. I was left feeling that there was a really interesting documentary struggling to free itself from this dramatisation.
Irving filed his suit against Penguin and Lipstadt on 5 September 1996 (the same day he filed a suit against Gitta Sereny and the Observer, a case that Irving eventually dropped after the newspaper had spent £850,000 in preparation). The Irving vs. Penguin/Lipstadt trial lasted from 11 January to 15 March 2000 and judgment was given on 11 April 2000.
Denial was produced by the BBC, and has a distinct made-for-TV feel. David Hare’s script is based on Lipstadt’s account of the trial, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, but I would love to know what Deborah Lipstadt really thinks about her portrayal in the film. Though it is saved by some good moments, and by great performances by Andrew Scott as the solicitor on the case, Anthony Julius, and particularly by Tom Wilkinson as Richard Rampton, the barrister, Rachel Weisz is totally miscast as Lipstadt herself, while Timothy Spall’s performance as Irving – though praised by many critics – presents a man of oleaginous complacency who is nothing like the weasel-faced, steel-eyed Irving I recall seeing in documentaries or on the news at the time.
But it is Weisz’s portrayal of Lipstadt that is the film’s great weakness. It lacks the maturity or gravitas necessary to represent a woman who was in her fifties and had a distinguished academic career to her name by the time of the trial. An opening scene represents her giving a lecture to students at Emory University in Atlanta, where she taught Jewish Studies. This is the most unlikely lecture by a serious academic that you can imagine. It is almost as if one of her young students had taken the platform – all emotion, and no sense that this is a person whose words are founded on serious research and learning.
Hare’s script must be at fault, too, since Lipstadt is written as an impassioned mouthpiece with no internal life. Weisz does little to humanise her, relying on making smoothies in her juicer and regular jogging to somehow define the character. The early university scenes are like something out of a Disney film.
The problem is, I think, that Hare decided to inject drama into this tale of legal complexities by hamming up the contrast between Lipstadt as an impulsive and impassioned New Yorker and the cool, methodical but also deeply-old fashioned Brits on her legal team. This decision meant presenting Lipstadt as someone baffled by aspects of the British legal system – rather than having a single defence lawyer, it requires a solicitor to prepare the case and a barrister to represent in court – and bemused by its wigs and robes, 10 am starts, and lunch breaks in which vintage wines are consumed. Remember those Hollywood films of the 1950s in which you’d see this sort of thing – London recognisable by men in bowler hats, red buses and stately buildings? It’s reminiscent of that sort of thing. The only glimmer of recognition shown by Lipstadt in these strange Brit ways is when she’s told that the solicitor Julius once represented Princess Diana in her divorce.
Did Lipstadt really react with consternation when told by the British legal team that she won’t be testifying in court herself? Or when denied the possibility of Holocaust survivors being called as witnesses (to save them from being humiliated by Irving, in the judgement of the legal team)? I doubt it; more likely there were serious discussions rather than emotional outbursts. Here, however, Rampton is compelled to advise Lipstadt, ‘what feels best isn’t what works best.’
Having said all this, there are things which the film does well. Aspects of the legal team’s strategy are brought out clearly, from the reason why Irving sued for libel in the British courts (our process places the burden of proof on the defendant rather than the plaintiff) to their shrewd legal tactic of securing Irving’s approval for the case being heard in front of a judge, with no jury (to minimise Irving’s theatricals), on the grounds that a jury of laypersons would not be able to get to grips with the case’s complex technicalities. Irving assents, fatally snared by this appeal to his intellectual vanity.
It’s a shame that the court hearings themselves form such a limited part of the screenplay. We get a sense of the broad case put to Irving by the defence team – that he deliberately and systematically, by falsification and omission, presented a history which he knew could not be true, but which was done instead for political gain and personal notoriety rather than any historical accuracy – but see only glimpses of the court exchanges.
There is a lot of context which a documentary might have provided, but which is difficult to do in a drama. For instance, that Irving’s reputation had been largely discredited by serious historians of the period, his research methods revealed as flawed and wholly lacking in any notion of authorial independence. We do get glimpses in the courtroom scenes of Irving’s inconsistency: how he had gone from accepting the Holocaust, to accepting the Holocaust but denying Hitler’s knowledge of it, to accepting the Holocaust but denying the numbers involved, and then finally to denying it happened at all.
The best – and most surprising – moment in the film comes with a scene shot on location at Auschwitz (how often has a non-documentary film been shot there?). Filmed in winter gloom, the camp blanketed in snow and mist, it is a rare moment in Denial that drives home what was at stake in this case. But even this finely-envisaged scene is drafted into the ongoing tussle between Lipstadt and Rampton: we are led to believe that she can’t understand the barrister’s need to visit the site, and she’s annoyed because he turns up late (he’s been walking the perimeter of what is, in his words, ‘the scene of the crime’).
Never has there been a more urgent moment for a serious film on the subject of Holocaust denial. Unfortunately, Denial is not that film. While far from worthless, it is a disappointment. As for Deborah Lipstadt herself, she seems to have maintained a diplomatic silence about her portrayal in the film.
But, writing in The Atlantic on 30 January in response to the Trump administration’s statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day – condemned for the absence of specific mention of anti-Semitism or of Jews as the principal victims of the Holocaust – Lipstadt in turn condemned what she termed ‘soft-core Holocaust denial’:
Holocaust denial is alive and well in the highest offices of the United States. It is being spread by those in President Trump’s innermost circle. It may have all started as a mistake by a new administration that is loath to admit it’s wrong. Conversely, it may be a conscious attempt by people with anti-Semitic sympathies to rewrite history. Either way it is deeply disturbing. For me these developments are intensely personal – not because I have immediate family members who died in the Holocaust. I don’t. But I have spent a good number of years fighting something which the White House now seems to be fostering.
Lipstadt continued by referring to Denial, and to the Irving case:
Because of the nature of British libel laws which placed the burden of proof on me, I had no choice but to fight. Had I not fought he would have won by default and his denial version of the Holocaust – no gas chambers, no mass killings, no Hitler involvement, and that this is all a myth concocted by Jews – would have been enshrined in British law.
And then this powerfully-stated passage:
There were indeed millions of innocent people whom the Nazis killed in many horrific ways, some in the course of the war and some because the Germans perceived them—however deluded their perception—to pose a threat to their rule. They suffered terribly. But that was not the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was something entirely different. It was an organized program with the goal of wiping out a specific people. Jews did not have to do anything to be perceived as worthy of being murdered. Old people who had to be wheeled to the deportation trains and babies who had to be carried were all to be killed. The point was not, as in occupied countries, to get rid of people because they might mount a resistance to Nazism, but to get rid of Jews because they were Jews. […]
The de-Judaization of the Holocaust, as exemplified by the White House statement, is what I term softcore Holocaust denial. Hardcore denial is the kind of thing I encountered in the courtroom. In an outright and forceful fashion, Irving denied the facts of the Holocaust. In his decision, Judge Charles Grey called Irving a liar and a manipulator of history. He did so, the judge ruled, deliberately and not as the result of mistakes.
And she concluded:
In the penultimate sentence of the president’s statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the White House promised to ensure that “the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good.” But the statement was issued on the same day as the order banning refugees. It is hard not to conclude that this is precisely what happened at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This is why the story of how Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books came to be sued by David Irving needs to told. Pity that Denial makes a hash of it.