By Katy Shick
One of the challenges faced by the screenwriter of a film based on a true event is to find the story within it. Real people’s lives rarely play out like fiction. Whereas the writer of fiction can shape his or her characters and then write a story around them, the writer seeking to relate a story from history must faithfully recreate what happened and how people behaved. He or she must find the story within the events even if it isn’t immediately evident. If he or she cannot do this, then it never becomes anything beyond a journalistic account.
In the new film, Denial, screenwriter David Hare tackles the tricky task of bringing to the screen the true story of Deborah Lipstadt, a Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, and her fight against libel charges leveled by noted Holocaust denier, David Irving. The trial at the center of the film was widely published; therefore, the film cannot draw from the suspense of an impending verdict nor build its drama from an unknown resolution. The world knows that Dr. Lipstadt won her case by proving that Irving’s evidence for his claims to deny the Holocaust was based on scientifically unsound evidence fueled by anti-Semitism. Instead, the narrative of Denial is the exploration of how truth is judged, what is necessary to establish it, and whether “denial” deserves a voice once truth has been firmly established. As such, Denial is not so much Dr. Lipstadt’s fight against Irving as it is the story of the Holocaust’s “day in court” and how it should be interpreted—whether through the testimonials of those who lived it or through forensic science.
As the film opens, Dr. Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) stands before a white board emphatically reviewing the three sources of denial. Making great flourishes with marker in hand, she is passionate and emotional. Her passion, however, will prove to be both her strength and her handicap. At a lecture when she adamantly criticizes the right of deniers such as Irving to make their claims against the truth of the Holocaust, she opens herself to Irving’s lawsuit. Both figuratively and literally blinded by the attack, she stands at the lectern shielding her eyes, trying to make out Irving’s shadowy profile as he takes over her lecture and captivates the audience with his promise to give anyone $1,000 if he or she can prove that Hitler personally ordered the “final solution.”
When her publishing company asks her whether she wants to fight the lawsuit, she enthusiastically answers that she does. She is wholly unqualified to defend herself in a court of law against Irving, however, and must defer to the legal team hired on her behalf, thus establishing the major problem of the film. Dr. Lipstadt wants to confront Irving directly. She wants to testify on her own behalf. She wants to put survivors of the Holocaust on the witness stand. Most importantly she wants to defend the world’s generally accepted proof of the Holocaust—survivor narratives. She is quickly told by her legal team, celebrity solicitor, Andrew Julius (played by Sherlock actor Andrew Scott) and veteran litigator, Richard Rampton (played by Tom Wilkinson), that she cannot combat Irving in this way. Because Irving has argued that physical proof and scientific evidence back his claims, they must counter him with their own forensic evidence. And because the British legal system places the burden of proof on the defendant, they must find physical proof that the Holocaust did happen just as the survivors have always contended. It is this task that threatens her case because until then very little physical proof of the Holocaust had been established to corroborate the narratives of survivors.
And so, the team must travel to Auschwitz to find their proof. Once there, they are confronted by the sheer power of Auschwitz. They travel beneath the “Work is Freedom” entrance sign; they walk among the barracks; and they descend into the ruins of the gas chambers (which were dynamited twice by the retreating Nazi forces in an attempt to hide their crimes). An eerie, icy fog lays over the camp, and the silence of its emptiness seems to contain the weight of the thousands of souls who suffered there. Even on film Auschwitz exudes an uncanniness that clearly states that something horrific happened there. Dr. Lipstadt feels it. As she recites a prayer in Hebrew at the entrance of the gas chamber, she is suddenly surrounded by ghostly images of people descending the steps. Although not tangible and concrete, this truth stands as clear as any forensic evidence could.
The team, however, cannot bring the judge to Auschwitz nor transport it to a British court that cannot rule on a case based on an intangible truth no matter how powerful it may be. The team’s only hope is to disprove the so-called evidence Irving has long used—that there is no physical proof that poison gas was used on living persons (not just on their clothing or their corpses to control the spread of Typhus).
The tension of the film perhaps is best developed in the courtroom scenes that follow in which Dr. Lipstadt’s legal team must discover a way to prove that there can be no other way to interpret the purpose of the gas chamber but as a death chamber. Yet, the heart of the story continues to be the tension between Dr. Lipstadt and her lawyers and between Dr. Lipstadt and the Jewish community who feel marginalized and excluded. As a leading figure in the defense of the Holocaust narrative, Dr. Lipstadt must represent the “Sh’ erit h-Pletah,” those who survived the Holocaust and were given the task of telling their stories to the world. She is criticized by the Jewish community, and she feels dishonest and weak for not forcing her team to allow her to take the stand in her own defense. She seems to embody their frustration of first being victimized by the Nazis who sought to eradicate all Jews and then silenced by the authorities of the world that allowed the Holocaust to happen and now assume to know how to tell their stories. The Jewish community has always been very careful to maintain control over the Holocaust narrative and has adamantly argued that survivor narratives are important. In fighting to defend herself against Irving’s attacks, Dr. Lipstadt must stand for the Jewish community itself and defend its right of ownership of the Holocaust narrative. In the poster for the film, Dr. Lipstadt stands uneasily trapped behind Irving who seems to seek to eclipse her but in front of Rampton who stands defiantly behind her, also threatening to overshadow her. In the end she wins her case, but it is the victory of her lawyers despite her triumphant look.
The principal actors are well cast and bring strength to their roles. Timothy Spall is especially good as the bombastic and slimy Irving, and Tom Wilkinson lends gravity and dignity to Rampton, portraying him as not just a skilled litigator who knows how to win a case but as a caring intellectual who wants to establish indisputable truth. Rachel Weisz expertly captures Dr. Lipstadt’s passion and bluntness and keeps Dr. Lipstadt sympathetic even though the screenplay gives her little more than this bluntness to work with. At times it is difficult to truly like her character even when it is clear that she is the film’s protagonist.
Denial is not a great film, but it is a good film mainly in its argument that we should be wary of allowing those with an agenda to cloud public perception. Given the current political climate throughout Europe in the wake of the “Brexit” vote, economic uncertainty, and the rise of radical and xenophobic conservativism, Denial is a timely reminder that the forces that led to the rise of the Nazi regime sprang from the desperation of a post-war population looking for stability in a shifting world, not from an isolated group of especially deviant individuals. In our own political landscape, Americans have been tempted to accept half-truths and selective evidence to get behind a candidate promising prosperity. Lest we forget, many people have had their heads turned by the promise that their lives can be improved if only they supported a cause or a particularly charismatic individual. Perhaps we should all see Denial to remind ourselves that actual truth does not make for slick sound bites but is sober and best left in the hands of individuals who seek to study the entire evidence.
Denial is playing at a/perture cinema.