I caught a screening of Denial yesterday, the dramatization of British author David Irving’s libel suit against Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt, and was quite impressed.
The film is largely based on Lipstadt’s account of the proceedings, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, so it is told from her perspective. She is played exceptionally by Rachel Weisz, while Irving is depicted by Timothy Spall, who the audience may recognize as Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter films, or J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.
David Irving, author of some acclaimed works dealing with the Second World War from the German perspective had always been criticized for having a pro-Nazi bent. By the 1990s, however, he started engaging in full-scale Holocaust revisionism, denying the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz, for instance, and speaking at white supremacist gatherings.
He sued Lipstadt after she called him a Nazi apologist, “falsifier of history” and “dangerous spokesperson” for Holocaust revisionism in her book Denying the Holocaust. As is pointed out in the film, Irving chose to file the lawsuit in the U.K. where Lipstadt would be put on the defensive, having to prove that what she said about him is true. In the U.S., Irving would have had to prove that he is a legitimate historian.
Though the film is told from Lipstadt’s purview, which is difficult to avoid since she won the trial, it doesn’t present Irving as a cartoonish villain. He is a loving father, shown playing with his children in between meetings with Lipstadt’s legal team.
Nor is Lipstadt depicted as a flawless hero. In the film, she’s obstinate, repeatedly demanding Holocaust survivors testify against her lawyers’ wishes.
Ultimately, she doesn’t take the stand, nor does a survivor, but one of the film’s major tensions is Lipstadt coming to terms with the distinction between her work as a historian and the legal system.This tension is encapsulated in her relationship with a Shoah survivor who attends the trial and continuously asks Lipstadt to ensure their voices are heard.
Her lawyers, led by Anthony Julius, insisted that bringing Holocaust survivors to testify would make the trial about whether the Holocaust occurred when it should be about demonstrating Irving’s unsavoury worldview.
There is a view held by many civil libertarians, myself included, that prosecuting Holocaust denial only serves to draw attention to deniers’ repugnant views. However, this case is different, as Irving initiated the lawsuit, putting Lipstadt’s right to harshly criticize him under risk of censorship.
As in reality, the film’s Irving is highly articulate and scrupulous, keeping an entire library’s worth of diaries, which Lipstadt’s team pored over for Third Reich sympathies.
The film’s Irving is also gracious, offering to shake hands with Julius, after the judge’s ruling, an example of what Hannah Arendt, herself a Holocaust survivor, called the “banality of evil.”
Towards the movie’s conclusion with the Judge Charles Gray’s ruling, the justice asks a question that represents one of the film’s key themes – What if Irving sincerely believes the Holocaust was a lie? Perhaps he’s an anti-Semite, but Lipstadt accused him of deliberately falsifying the historical record.
Ultimately, the judge ruled in her favour. The mistakes found in Irving’s work were not the result of simple errors or genuine conviction, but malicious intent rooted in anti-Semitism.
But this is a question that has always vexed me about Holocaust deniers – are they genuinely convinced that the Holocaust was exaggerated, or is denial merely a neo-Nazi recruiting tool?
With its nuanced approach, the film does a good job of bringing this question to light without providing a definitive answer.