The truth is a touchy topic nowadays, which is why Denial – now available on Blu-ray and DVD via Bleecker Street and Entertainment One – packs such a strong punch. Directed by Mick Jackson, Denial describes the 1996 libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) against American Holocaust studies professor Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), and is based on Lipstadt’s own account of the trial.
The idea of someone– let alone a published historian– refusing to accept the deaths of 6 million Jews and the testimonies of thousands of survivors seems preposterous. (Indeed, to someone like me, who went through 12 years of Jewish day school education in which the Holocaust was very heavily featured, it still is.) Denial confronts this dissonance right at the outset, opening with a clip of Irving’s mocking speeches and a scene from the classroom of Professor Lipstadt, as our heroine explains exactly what categorizes a Holocaust denier. Playing devil’s advocate for her students, Lipstadt challenges: “Where’s the proof?” The Nazis, she points out, were meticulous about keeping their actions clean and clandestine.
In the all-too-brief “making of” section of the DVD extras, Tom Wilkinson, the actor who plays Lipstadt’s barrister Richard Rampton, poses the issue this way: “The Holocaust happened, everybody knows it,” he says. “But once you have to prove it…”
The way that libel laws work in the U.K., the burden of proof is on the defendant, not the plaintiff. In other words: in English courts, one is guilty until proven innocent. So when David Irving publicly confronts Lipstadt and then sues for her defaming him as a Holocaust denier in her books, Lipstadt must rise to his challenge, or risk a de facto victory for Irving, which would lend him and his claims credibility. As the real-life Deborah Lipstadt says in the DVD extra: ”You can’t fight every battle. But there are certain battles you can’t turn away from.”
Though Denial moves slowly and deliberately, the cast is electric. Rachel Weisz, an actress of Jewish descent whose parents fled Austria in 1938 in order to escape the spread of Nazism, steps right into the fiery Lipstadt’s shoes, Queens accent and all. As Irving, Timothy Spall is eerily calm and deceptively rational. Irving’s bemused courtroom assertion that he’s “not a racist” and “not an anti-Semite” comes across as all the more chilling because it is clear that he perversely believes his statements to be true – and Spall spins this image perfectly. Meanwhile, Andrew Scott plays against type as a soft-spoken Anthony Julius, the solicitor who helps build Lipstadt’s defense.
Denial is most compelling when exploring the moral greyness that makes this landmark case so important. When Irving is dragged away from Lipstadt’s lecture at the beginning of the movie after she refuses to engage with him, we are forced to wonder about the possible limits of free speech – and when questioned on this point, Lipstadt flatly responds: “I won’t debate fact.” Of course, that is precisely what she must do to discredit Irving’s poisonous lies in the eyes of the public.
And in order to win the case, Lipstadt must commit her own act of “self-denial”: she must remain silent. To confront Irving, they must meet him on his own turf, which is why Lipstadt’s attorneys won’t allow any Holocaust survivors to testify in the courtroom. “This isn’t about memorializing,” a member of her defense team tells her, after Lipstadt reacts emotionally to an Auschwitz visit. “It’s about forensics.”
Perhaps this is why Denial feels, at times, very distant. The film itself accomplishes what Lipstadt must accomplish: rational engagement with an irrational nutjob. (Though it would have been nice to see more emotion and historical engagement in some extra features.)
If this notion isn’t enough to make you queasy, the echoes of current events should do the trick. In one excerpt from an Irving speech, he insists that “Jews keep going on about the Holocaust because it’s the only interesting thing that’s happened to them in 3,000 years,” and that most people find the subject “unbearingly boring” but are afraid to say so for fear of being considered “politically incorrect.” Meanwhile, the real-life Deborah Lipstadt is still fighting the good fight, albeit in 2017 America: After the Trump administration deliberately left out any mention of the Jewish people in the White House statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Lipstadt explained how this constitutes “softcore Holocaust denial.” Alas, it appears the work of this fearless warrior is not yet finished, which makes Denial all the more necessary for our times.