Deborah Lipstadt finds her voice in ‘Denial’

A guest of the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, the Holocaust historian and author speaks to the ‘Post’ about her role in the making of a new Holocaust film and the perils of ignoring history.

‘I’D RATHER have no movie than the wrong movie, no movie than a movie that played with the truth,’ says Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt (right), seen here with actress Rachel Weisz, who portrays Lipstadt in ‘Denial (photo credit: LIAM DANIEL)
‘I’D RATHER have no movie than the wrong movie, no movie than a movie that played with the truth,’ says Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt (right), seen here with actress Rachel Weisz, who portrays Lipstadt in ‘Denial
(photo credit: LIAM DANIEL)
"I’d rather have no movie than the wrong movie, no movie than a movie that played with the truth,” says Deborah Lipstadt, the historian whose work and life are the basis for Denial, a new movie about how she was sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving.
The movie will open the 18th Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival on December 24 at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Lipstadt will appear at that screening and another one on December 25, and will do a Q&A at both.
The festival, which features more than 40 international and Israeli films, will run until December 29. Denial will open at theaters around Israel on December 29.
Lipstadt, the author of many books and the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, was understandably cautious when producers approached her about turning her book – History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (now re-released under the title, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial) – into a movie. As a historian, her professional reputation is based on the accuracy of her work, and Hollywood is notorious for playing fast and loose with the truth to make a movie more crowd-pleasing or dramatic.
But she is very happy with the finished product, which stars Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt.
During her discussions with screenwriter David Hare, she realized that “David Hare got it, David Hare understood that this was a story that couldn’t be jazzed up, that this was a story about facts, and that if you’re going to tell a story about facts, you have to be factual.
“Irony of ironies, one critic said about the movie that what was missing was a high point in the courtroom,” where Lipstadt should have confronted Irving. “That wasn’t going to happen in the movie because that wasn’t what happened” in court.
Lipstadt worked closely with the filmmakers to create a movie that stays true to life, in its depiction of the bizarre saga of the libel suit that David Irving brought against Lipstadt in 1996, and which went to trial in 2000. The law in the UK is different from the US, and the burden of proof was on Lipstadt: She had to show that Irving had deliberately distorted the truth.
While her initial impulse was to bring in Holocaust survivors to testify and to confront him in court, her British legal team advised against it and used methodical historical research to prove that Irving had lied in his work.
It was an interesting and unusual experience for this academic to see an Oscar-winning actress portraying her on the big screen, but she enjoyed working with Weisz.
“Rachel is a first-rate actor, a professional’s professional...
She wanted to do this right, she wanted to get as much information from me as possible. She wanted to draw me out.” In an early scene, the films showed Lipstadt lecturing, when she was unexpectedly interrupted by Irving, who sought to turn her class into a debate on whether the Holocaust occurred.
Weisz “called me the morning before she was going to film it, and she said, ‘Tell me what you were feeling, tell me what you were experiencing.’ And I said, ‘I was like a deer in the headlights, I was totally blindsided by the fact that he showed up. I didn’t know what to do.
I didn’t have a strategy. If they threw him out, he could say, ‘Aha! I’m a martyr.’ If he stayed in and kept disrupting, the students would think, ‘Who is this man?... Why is she not answering him? Maybe he knows facts she doesn’t know’... If you look at her face in the movie, you get it, she was at wit’s end. There were many moments like this that she captured in the film.”
Seeing the movie brought back memories of the trial, which was a sometimes frustrating experience. “I was like a fish out of water for a good part of it. I’m not used to being a fish out of water... David Hare used to talk about films like Erin Brockovich, 12 Angry Men and Norma Rae, stories of the people who don’t have a voice ... and in the course of the story they find their voice. I had a voice and I had to silence it – that’s a strange kind of thing.”
But now, promoting the film, she does have a voice. She wants it understood that she did not have to prove that the Holocaust took place, only that Irving deliberately lied about it.
“We didn’t want to dignify deniers. You don’t have a trial to prove that World War II happened.
You don’t have a trial to prove the Korean War happened.”
Lipstadt and her legal team proved their case against Irving by scrutinizing his work.
“We followed his footnotes back to the sources, we showed that virtually every time he dealt with the Holocaust there was some lie, some obfuscation, some changing of dates, some misinterpretation of what was said.” While she acknowledged that every historian looks back and sees that “some mistake crept in that you just didn’t catch, this wasn’t that... This was deliberate, premeditated.”
Her book, and the film, go into detail about his claims, giving many examples. “By doing that we really pulled the ground out from under deniers in the sense that they’re saying, ‘oh, we’re just historians looking at the historical record.’” While the trial in Denial has a happy end, she does see a disturbing trend in the willful disregard for historical truth in public discourse.
“Stephen Colbert, years ago, used to talk about something called ‘truthiness.’ You know, ‘If I insist something is true, if I yell loud enough, if I really believe it, then it has to have credibility.’ So we’ve seen that in the Brexit debate in England, we’ve seen that in the American elections, we’ve seen that in the debate over the environment, we’ve see that in the debate over vaccines and autism, and even now in the United States there’s a conspiracy theory about Sandy Hook where those children were murdered... that it was all a made-up deal by the Obama administration to get gun-control legislation.”
She cites other mind-boggling “absurd conspiracy theories” such as the story of Muslims dancing in Jersey City to celebrate 9/11, the Birther Movement that questioned whether President Obama was born in the United States, and the recent Pizzagate story, in which the Clintons were accused of running a pedophilia and human trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor.
“What’s dangerous is now you have people planting these stories, it’s not just mistakes creeping in... Conspiracy theories long predate the Holocaust, but Holocaust denial has been a template for this, whether [those who propagate these conspiracy theories] know it or not. Holocaust denial dresses up lies in respectable clothing...
Years ago, I became concerned about Holocaust denial when students would come up to me and say, ‘How do we know The Diary of Anne Frank was genuine? How do we know the gas chambers were real?’ And these were good kids taking my classes, these were kids who fought to get in... What had happened was that [through the Internet] they were influenced by the deniers without realizing it...
This is a very scary trend.”
Asked about the antisemitic harassment of reporters who have criticized Donald Trump in print, and the recent uptick in hate crimes, Lipstadt said, “This is more than just some crackpots. I want to be very careful here. I don’t want to say that there is a growing trend...
but it doesn’t take a lot of people to do dangerous things.
And I think that what’s been unleashed in the United States and other parts of the world during this election, is that a genie that already existed has been let out of the bottle, and you don’t need a lot of people to do a lot of damage. I hate the analogies to the Holocaust. The Holocaust was state-sponsored genocide. We’re not looking at state-sponsored murder or state-sponsored discrimination, but we’re looking at people who have been emboldened; and whether it’s against Muslims or Jews or homosexuals, they’ve been emboldened to do things they never would have done before... These haters don’t stop with one group.”
Describing a recent incident where a Muslim New York policewoman was harassed by a crowd, Lipstadt cautioned against discounting the seriousness of occurrences like these.
“People who hate like that and are prejudiced like that are dangerous, and Jews should know those kinds of dangers.”