A competent accomplished woman goes up against a populist outsider who has created a reputation built on lies. Sound familiar? Maybe, but this is not about the 2016 US election: it is the plot of the film Denial (2016), based on the true story of the trial between Jewish Studies and Holocaust scholar Deborah E. Lipstadt and British Holocaust denier David Irving.
There is no denying that Denial is a film for our times. Conceived nine years ago, and filmed in 2015, the parallels between the trial and the President election is not lost on viewers. Frustratingly, we do seem to live in a time in which history is ignored, facts seem like an inconvenience and there is a prevailing ideology – that one’s opinion is more important, regardless if you can back it up with facts or not. What happens in this scenario is that there can be no debate between anyone because those espousing opinion, cannot rationally articulate their argument against those who cite facts.
How to handle someone who bends the truth for their own purposes and how one needs to combat these individuals is what lies at the heart of the film, which is based on Lipstadt’s book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (2005) about her experience of being sued by the British author, David Irving for libel under English law. Irving sued in reaction to what Lipstadt wrote about him her 1993 work, Denying the Holocaust, where she referred to him as a dangerous denier of the Holocaust based on his popularity with the public and several prominent historians through his books about the Third Reich and World War II.
Irving (played by Timothy Spall) proudly plays upon of his self-made historian persona, which makes him very popular with right wing and neo-Nazi audiences, who embraced his assertions that equated the allies’ crimes to the crimes of the Third Reich and that Hitler was either unaware of the murder of millions of Jews or was their friend in halting the murders, done by his underlings.
The film portrays Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and her lawyer Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) not so much as who they are as people, but more as tropes in dealing with the approach to the trial. Rampton is portrayed symbolically as someone who is able to separate law from history, he silences his emotions to gather the evidence he needs to prove that Irving is a fraud under English law. On the other side is Lipstadt, (representing both her conscience and ours) who is more vocal in regards to the emotional impact that the history of the Holocaust has on the survivors and on us to remember the six million in a respectful way. Lipstadt wants to testify, and include survivors to be sure they get justice, Rampton and the rest of the team repudiate this strategy, instead insisting she and the survivors remain silent.
By doing this the filmmakers create a tension between the two that drives the film, and is best illustrated by the scenes in Auschwitz. Once there, we accompany Rampton as he visits the camp’s museum. He is alone, quietly taking photos of the mounds of eye glasses and luggage. As he enters the room with the shoes, the camera tracks around the display cases, disorientating us. It is overwhelming and nauseating, allowing us to sense how Rampton is feeling, giving us his point of view. Next we see him, as if we are looking out of the case, his face is tight, his jaw clenched, as he tries to separate what he feels from the information he must gather.
In the next scene we are introduced to an annoyed Lipstadt as she voices her displeasure at Rampton’s tardiness as they wait for him at Birkenau. Later in the scene she will also have a very emotional reaction to what she perceives as his lack of respect for the sanctity of Auschwitz as memorial, to honor those who were murdered there. What is discovered and perceived at Auschwitz is central to the narrative of the film over the debate of how the case is being fought.
Once in court Lipstadt is forced to sit silently, as Irving spins his revisionist narrative. Anyone (myself included) who has ever had to sit through a presentation given by a denier or has been attacked by one at a lecture, knows the frustration of having to remain quiet as they ramble off their lies. The real life Lipstadt recently remarked at a discussion about the film, that for her remaining silent is an “unnatural act.” (USHMM September 28, 2016) Even in silence, Lipstadt was still defending history, the survivors and the six million.
The filmmakers reinforce her bravery in accepting the case by linking her to other women who have stood up in the face of adversity. The first being the Hebrew heroine and prophetess Deborah who leads the Israelites to defeat Canaanites (who Lipstadt is named for), and second, Queen Boudicea of the British tribe the Iceni, who led a revolt against the Romans in 60-61BCE, much to her own personal peril and loss. The film brings this symbol to the forefront by having Lipstadt run by Boudicea’s statue on her many outings to relieve stress during the trial. I did wonder if indeed Lipstadt was a jogger, and discovered she was, but the film uses it to remind us that Lipstadt is someone who runs towards a fight not away from it.
In the end the trial is Irving’s downfall, defeated by his own assertions. At a lecture she gave at the Jerusalem Center in June of 2004, Lipstadt recounted that at some points in the trial they were able to expose Irving not only as a falsifier of history but as an irrational and foolish figure. “Defeating him was important. The battle against people like this is to defeat them in a way that does not make them important. One must dress or let them dress themselves in the Jester’s costume, in that way it is he, who survives to give witness to his own powerlessness.”
Jodi Elowitz is an adjunct professor of the Humanities at Gateway Community College in Phoenix, Arizona, and former Program Coordinator for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.