Professor’s legal battle for truth takes over big screen in Denial

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Lipstadt is accused of libel by World War II historian Irving after including him in a book about Holocaust deniers.

History is up for interpretation. Whenever people try to fit real events into their own narrative, errors can occur and mistakes can be made in the process. Apocryphal stories get mixed up with fact and, as a result, historical accounts can be muddled.

Still, no matter how much interpretation becomes a part of the telling of history, there are certain inalienable truths. Unfortunately, there are some people who choose to deny the truth of the Holocaust’s existence, and the film Denial tells the story of a conflict between a Holocaust denier and a woman unafraid to confront this distortion of history.

In 1996, Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian and professor at Emory University, was sued by David Irving for libel. Irving, known at the time as a historian, claimed that Lipstadt’s book “accuse[d] him of being a Nazi apologist and an admirer of Hitler, who has resorted to the distortion of facts and to the manipulation of documents in support of his contention that the Holocaust did not take place.”

With a trial in England, the burden of proof rested on Lipstadt, effectively implying that it was her responsibility to prove that the Holocaust happened. The expectation was daunting. As the film shows, a lot of evidence of mass extermination was purposely erased by the Germans, with gas chambers bombed before attacking forces reached Auschwitz.

With this in mind, Lipstadt’s legal team turned its focus toward Irving with the intent to prove that he falsified history purposely to distort facts. While this was a powerful strategy, the absence of Holocaust survivors from the witness stand raised questions. These questions are asked in the film by Lipstadt, portrayed by Rachel Weisz with a strong and truthful performance.

As the emotional center of the film, she struggles with the fact that her defense wants to keep her and the Holocaust survivors off the stand. She is confronted by the survivors, asking why they have not been requested for the purpose of testimony. A woman rolls up her sleeve to show the numbers on her arm and Lipstadt cannot satisfy her with a proper response.

The legal team for Lipstadt includes Anthony Julius, a stalwart yet firm solicitor played by Andrew Scott, and Richard Rampton, the surprisingly sweet barrister. The former prepares the case while the latter argues it in court. The cast does an excellent job at implementing pathos as a motivating factor toward fighting the lawsuit.

On the other side of the courtroom stands David Irving, representing himself as his own attorney. He is played by Timothy Spall, coming off as both unsavory and logical. He is referred to in the film as being surprisingly impressive and that does hold true. Though Irving is a Holocaust denier, Spall’s portrayal shows a person whose skillful rhetoric can draw in the unsuspecting. He utilizes spectacle and news media to get his voice heard.

Twenty years after the suit was filed, his methods still feel relevant. The film relates to the modern zeitgeist in its depiction of free speech, hatred and media. Lipstadt jogs at night following a bad day in court and passes a newspaper sign that reads, “No Holes No Holocaust.”

The denial argument by Irving sounds catchy so it takes the headlines. Irving tries to control the narrative by speaking to the media before, during and after the trial.

Anti-Semitism is present in the cries of neo-Nazis outside the courthouse and in the speeches of Irving. Arguments are raised claiming that there is a lot of political correctness that helps maintain the position of the Holocaust in history and that it is an exercise in free speech to deny its existence.

To paraphrase Lipstadt’s response, anyone can exercise their free speech but that also means that they are held accountable for what they say. Though Denial does have underlying notes that can be recognized through the prism of the 21st century, the real purpose in the film’s existence is a compelling story and an important truth that needs to be remembered. The Holocaust did happen and the denial of the atrocities that were perpetrated is something that elicits a strong emotional response. To combat this, Anthony Julius repeatedly emphasizes that the trial needs to be logical and focused on Irving. This is understandable, but the pathos is still present. Lipstadt and Rampton visit Auschwitz to prepare for the trial and when the first stable, snow-covered shot of the concentration camp appears, it is overwhelming. Lipstadt and the guide Professor Robert Jan van der Pelt stand and recite the traditional Jewish prayer to mourn those who have passed, first in English and then in Hebrew.

The truth resonates as it reminds viewers about the significance of the court case. According to director Mick Jackson, when it comes to the courtroom scenes, “every word is verbatim.” The reality can be felt in the little moments, as the defense argues every point, trying to reveal the truth about Irving.

It is all about truth and about fighting to preserve the reality of the Holocaust. There can be no opinions on whether or not it happened. Lipstadt and her team refuse to settle out of court, as it could potentially validate those who would choose denial as their opinion.

Denial is an important film. It could just as well be watched in theaters as it can on Holocaust Remembrance Day, but it must be watched. It reminds audiences about the importance of truth and erasing the hatred that exists for reality. The fight for truth continues today and no matter what the viewers’ opinions are, the truth must stand.