Synopsis – Acclaimed writer and historian Deborah E. Lipstadt must battle for historical truth to prove the Holocaust actually occurred when David Irving, a renowned denier, sues her for libel.
My Take – As a fan of courtroom dramas, I am glad I checked this film out. In my opinion, dramas for the most part seek out ambiguity or at the very least explore it when it presents itself within a narrative, whereas, in courtroom dramas there is a clear wronged party, a clear defense and prosecution, and a clear result at the end of the day. In many ways, they’re not meant to be a celebration of people but a celebration of a system. One where we take for granted a presumption of innocence. Mix that with something as the crucial as the genocide committed by the Nazis, popularly known as the Holocaust, you get one hell of an intriguing feature. Directed by Mick Jackson, who is best known for his 1991 film L.A. Story and 1992 film The Bodyguard, and for his Emmy-winning 2010 TV film Temple Grandin, this film is based on the book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving” by Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University in Atlanta, giving us an examination of Professor Lipstadt’s court battle in London to defend herself from a libel charge brought by British historian David Irving, a Holocaust denier and alleged anti-Semite. For all intents and purposes, it is a trial to determine whether or not the Holocaust was real. In real, Historians (the non-Jewish ones, for the most part) have always struggled with the obvious lack of sufficient evidence to corroborate a substantial portion of the Holocaust eyewitness accounts, particularly pertaining to the gas chamber element. Eyewitness testimonies don’t mean much if they cannot be backed by other evidence. You cannot get a life sentence based purely on a bunch of people telling the court they saw you shoot someone in a dark alley, especially if those people have strong connection to the victim! They may be telling the truth but if that truth cannot be verified by other evidence, it becomes indistinguishable from fiction and therefore unsustainable as objective fact. Historical and even scientific truth can be merely the consensus agreed upon by those who presently have the power and influence to determine public opinion, or it can be based on evidence that has been tested in the laboratory, in debate, or in a court of law. Liars and deceivers, of whatever color or nationality, should be exposed and openly criticized. Period! Here, the courtroom dialogue is taken directly from trial records and transcripts and like most courtroom dramas, the quality relies heavily on actors.
The story follows Emory University Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who upon published her book in 1993, captured the attention of the notorious British Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall), who eventually brought a lawsuit against her in Britain claiming she damaged his reputation by calling him a “Holocaust denier, falsifier, and bigot.” When Irving initially came down to Atlanta and confronted Lipstadt, she refused to speak with him, insisting that any communication with Holocaust deniers would legitimize their arguments. But after Irving filed the lawsuit, she decided to take him on and hired a solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who was already famous for representing Princess Diana in the divorce proceedings with the Royal Family. Julius explained to Lipstadt that the burden of proof in the British civil system was quite different then in America, with the accused obligated to prove its case, not the plaintiff. Furthermore, Julius pointed out that he wouldn’t be arguing the case in court—that he was its organizer. Instead, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) was to be the barrister in charge. Beyond the obvious stress, Lipstadt internalizes to clash with bigots on an even platform gives them attention and legitimacy. Still, Lipstadt feels it is her duty to fight the good fight, despite criticism from England’s Jewish community. Even her crack legal team continually ignores her personal feelings towards the case. To win, Lipstadt feels she needs to abandon her conscious. This is the story of her turmoil until it isn’t. The machinations of Lipstadt’s defense team are fascinating, including their decision to have the case heard before a judge instead of a jury as well as their insistence that Lipstadt not testify during the trial. What’s more, they barred any Holocaust survivors from testifying as they were quite convinced that Irving would probably humiliate them during cross-examination. The film has to explain the English legal system and have a narrative of Lipstadt being passionate, wanting to bring survivors of the Holocaust to court to give evidence but getting short shrift from her lawyers who wanted to prepare for the case dispassionately and methodically. The trial finally started in 2000, and as always, it’s fascinating to compare the British court of law and process with that of the United States. The formality is on full display, but nuance and showmanship still play a role. The film and the trial ask the question – are you a racist/anti-Semite if you truly believe the despicable things you say/write? This is the question that the judge wrestles with. Tension develops early between the defendant and her team when, on a fact-finding visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Lipstadt accuses Rampton of being clinical and unemotional about what happened there, a charge to which he takes umbrage. Conflict also surfaces when Rampton and Julius decide that neither Lipstadt nor any Holocaust survivors will be put on the stand in order to keep the focus on Irving’s credibility and not give him the opportunity to badger or humiliate the witness. When Lipstadt argues that it is her right “to stand up against someone who wants to pervert the truth,” Rampton tells her that “these things are happening to you, but the case is not about you.” Director Mick Jackson wisely included scenes outside the courtroom for variety. Perhaps the most effective one involves Lipstadt and Rampton traveling to Auschwitz where they gather evidence in order to refute Irving’s claims that extermination in the gas chambers did not occur. Lipstadt also has some compelling scenes where she must deal with a Holocaust survivor who’s quite upset that no survivors will be called to testify. The importance of the film comes from the exposé of Irving’s stratagem of deceit.
Screenwriter David Hare took the entire trial scenes from verbatim court transcripts, which prove to be gripping to say the least. Irving’s arguments are unmasked during cross-examination by Rampton when he claims the gas chambers were used to disinfect corpses and as a bomb shelter for SS men. Rampton points out the absurdity of Irving’s assertions by asking why corpses had to be “disinfected” if they were soon after going to be burnt? And the SS men’s barracks were 2-3 miles away from the location of the gas chambers and wouldn’t have been used for such a purpose. Irving also was exposed for mistranslating passages of documents in order to press his case that Hitler never ordered exterminations of Jews. A quotation from Himmler referring to a “single transport” barred by Hitler suddenly translates to the idea that he ordered none at all. The film is verbal, the court scenes are verbatim from the proceedings and cerebral, and this is where it is truest to the actual story. The film dramatizes the case using actual testimony based on court records but must be very selective in attempting to condense a trial that lasted four years into a less than two-hour film. When it reaches more directly for emotional impact — for example, with a Holocaust survivor whose name is never given, experiences never explored, and who never therefore can never rise above the level of placeholder. Without clear direction or a complex plot, the film’s strength is in characters & performances. Where Lipstadt is emotionally and culturally connected to her case, Rampton’s approach is initially impersonal. While visiting Auschwitz he is completely irreverent, approaching the monument like a crime scene. Over the course of a year of preparation he develops a personal hatred of Irving. When Denial becomes a courtroom drama, it is his arguments that dictate the momentum. Rampton speaks the words we need to hear. Perhaps the weakest aspect of the film is Lipstadt’s character. Her back story is negligible and due to the nature of the trial, where she’s barred from testifying by her own lawyers, Lipstadt doesn’t have as much to do as Rampton, who virtually steals the show. Rachel Weisz does her best with a Queens’s accent but doesn’t remind one of the real-life Lipstadt in the least. Nonetheless, Lipstadt’s overly emotional nature is ably conveyed by Weisz, and is nicely contrasted with her staid defense team. Rachel Weisz, an actress of remarkable range with a much wider body of work than most realize, takes a lower key than she usually does because the story requires it. One applauds her restraint. Timothy Spall bravely takes on the role of David Irving, a pathetic figure blind to how his racism and anti-Semitism corrupted his writings and beliefs, without a doubt, he is despicable and brilliant. Tom Wilkinson is excellent as the barrister Richard Rampton who advocates for Ms. Lipstadt and Penguin Books in the libel suit brought by Mr. Irving. Andrew Scott as the noted solicitor who also handled Princess Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles is likable. Strong support comes from Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius & Alex Jennings. On the whole, ‘Denial’ works as an important film on an important subject with excellent performances despite not being compelling enough.
Directed – Mick Jackson
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 109 minutes