110 minutes (12A)
American historian and Holocaust denier Fred A. Leuchter once said: “In this case, it is myself that I post mortem — and the cadaver isn’t dead! Much to the dismay of my executioners, the execution was so badly botched that I am able to stand here before you to speak the truth, and to tell the world that it is not myself, but the Holocaust story that is dead.”
Holocaust denial seems like a farfetched concept. However, it was once, and in some small quarters still is, a very real mutated faction of history and one that is at the centre of Denial. Written by lauded screenwriter/playwright David Hare and directed by Mick Jackson, the film is based on the true story of Deborah E. Lipstadt, a historian and Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University.
In 1996, another outspoken Holocaust denier and alleged neo-Nazi David Irving, who closely followed Leuchter’s work, sued Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books for what he claimed was an attack on his character based on Lipstadt’s grievous opinion of him. She called him a liar, among other things, in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.
Not wanting to settle for buffoonery, and though less than enthusiastic about giving Irving a platform to turn his venom towards survivors of the Holocaust, Lipstadt and Penguin decided to fight anyway. Due to Irving’s insistence to hold the trial in London, the burden of proof fell onto Lipstadt’s head, as opposed to the American judicial system where the accused are innocent until proven guilty.
So began the war between truth and opinion.
The cast carries this event somewhat seamlessly, aided greatly by the fluency and eloquence of Hare’s script, which he derived from Lipstadt’s biography. Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt, despite a terrible wig and slightly off base Queen’s accent – she more than manages to move her way through the story – which is the real star of the film.
Her fellow players include a dastardly Timothy Spall as David Irving, Tom Wilkinson as Richard Rampton the QC who presented the case and Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius, the celebrity solicitor who famously guided Diana through her divorce from the Prince of Wales. Scott plays it with an intelligent arrogance that perfectly contrasts Weisz’s American brashness. He’s especially good when explaining the case strategy to Lipstadt. His Julius is reticent while relaying to the exasperated academic that she’s not allowed to speak about the case or testify. The hero is silenced.
Timothy Spall brilliantly portrays the bombast of a pseudo-intellectual like Irving who represented himself in court. Drifting into caricature with such an outlandish personality is easy. But he’s just ugly enough throughout the film, making sure to maintain an indifference towards the definite suffering of millions of Jewish peoples.
It’s important to know that this isn’t a Holocaust film. Despite the moving scene at Auschwitz where Lipstadt, standing over what was once a mass grave – performs a Jewish prayer for the long dead.
Denial is about the truth and all its intricacies. The court scenes are what display this perfectly, with Wilkinson giving a stellar performance as the real-life Scottish barrister who famously refused to look in Irving’s face during the entirety of the trial.
Jackson skillfully crafts these moments interchanging them with a frustrated Lipstadt running through the streets of London. ‘No Holes, No Holocaust’ slapped on every front page – referring to Irving’s main argument that the gas chambers in Auschwitz never existed.
Staying true to history, it’s hardly a spoiler to say Irving loses the case and is blasted by the judge as a racist and Holocaust denier.
Yet it’s the last speech by Lipstadt at the post-verdict press conference, where’s she’s finally able to speak, that proves particularly poignant, especially during times such as these – where ‘alternative facts’ are rampant.
She says, “What you can’t do is lie and expect not to be held accountable for it. Not all opinions are equal. And some things happened, just like we say they do. Slavery happened, the Black Death happened. The Earth is round, the ice caps are melting, and Elvis is not alive.”
No Elvis is not alive, but the story of the Holocaust is, despite Leuchter’s claims. It is fact, and like Aldous Huxley once wrote, “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”