Movies: The Holocaust on trial

‘Denial’ looks at the story behind a lawsuit.

December 30, 2016 13:45
3 minute read.

‘Denial’. (photo credit: PR)

Hebrew title: Hakchasha
Directed by Mick Jackson
With Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott
Running time: 109 minutes
Rating: PG 13

The film Denial is about a lawsuit brought against historian Deborah Lipstadt by Holocaust denier David Irving in the 1990s. There is an undeniable power in the story, which is a clear example of good vs. evil if there ever was one, but the starkness of the narrative limits the drama.

In a story like this, it’s hard to find shadings, subtext and surprises. Does the heroine have flaws? Sure, but her cause doesn’t.

Does the villain possess some virtues? Maybe, but they don’t matter.

In a conventional movie, each side has its virtues and flaws, which fill the battle between the two combatants with conflict and interest. Here, there can be none of that, and the filmmakers come up against the inherent problem in fact-based dramas about famous cases. If we already know the outcome, how can they keep up the suspense?` Director Mick Jackson and screenwriter David Hare worked closely with Lipstadt to adapt her book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (now reissued under the title Denial: Holocaust History on Trial) and put the facts front and center. And the facts were harrowing. Lipstadt, a history professor of Emory University in Atlanta, found herself blindsided one day while lecturing, when David Irving showed up and challenged her, tauntingly promising to give $1,000 to anyone who could prove that one person died in a gas chamber in World War II. Although she had criticized him in her writing, Lipstadt did not know how to handle it when he showed up. Her longstanding policy is never to debate those who deny that the Holocaust took place. But the lecture incident was just a warmup.

Irving then sued Lipstadt for libel in England, where the libel laws place the burden of proof on the accused. In order for Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, to win the lawsuit, Lipstadt and her legal team would have to show that Irving had deliberately distorted the truth in his work and public statements.

Lipstadt, portrayed with energy and just a bit of schtick by Oscarwinning actress Rachel Weisz, comes off as an appealing character. Hard-working, a little frazzled, up for anything, Lipstadt is at a loss navigating the British legal system and had to put her faith in her British lawyers and advisers. Although her initial impulse is to confront Irving in court and bring in survivors to testify, her legal team strongly advised against this strategy, and she grudgingly acquiesced. In a recent interview ahead of the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, where Denial was the opening movie, Lipstadt told me how difficult it was for her to stay silent during the trial, saying that screenwriter David Hare talked to her about the usual movie drama, such as Norma Rae, in which a struggling character finds a voice, and she pointed out that her story was the reverse: An articulate, brilliant and assertive person had to trust in others and a foreign system.

Weisz brings life to the many scenes in which, in her New Yorkaccented English, she spars with her polished British legal team. In addition to Weisz, the movie features some of Britain’s best character actors. Timothy Spall has the thankless role of Irving, to whom the filmmakers wisely give virtually no back story. Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott play the defense team that has to win Lipstadt’s respect.

Lipstadt told me how important to her it was to keep the movie accurate, and to the filmmakers’ credit they did not invent any big courtroom confrontations. Had they played with the truth in any way, it could have made Lipstadt vulnerable to charges that her work was not credible. This gave the filmmakers quite a challenge.

Although they tried to make the film lively and suspenseful, they were not entirely successful. While the story of the trial is riveting, the movie of it is not. I think a documentary on the subject would have been more compelling. Still, I hope this movie inspires some in the audience to read the book on which it was based or some of Lipstadt’s other work.

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