Bleecker Street, 2016
Starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, and Timothy Spall
We are all heirs to the horrors of the twentieth century. Considering how poorly this century is going, so far, it would be an act of species suicide to forget what we did to each other over the last hundred years.
If anyone needs a reminder, one of the foremost failures of humanity in the last century was the Holocaust: the systematic murder of some 11 million people, more than half of them Jews, the others homosexuals, Communists, disabled, or those otherwise deemed “unworthy” of life by the Nazi regime.
“Denial” follows the true story of a woman who went to court for the sake of memory, Emory University Holocaust studies professor Deborah Lipstadt, played with irrepressible feeling by Rachel Weisz. The story is based on Lipstadt’s book Denial: Holocaust History on Trial. It was an earlier book of hers, the 1993 Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, that led a self-styled “Hitler historian,” David Irving, played by Timothy Spall, to take her to court in his native United Kingdom.
At one point, Irving had been a respected and respectable historian, but his growing affinity for white-supremacist ideology and associations with Neo-Nazi groups began to bleed into his work. Eventually, he claimed that Auschwitz, the concentration camp where a million human beings were killed and their remains burned in mass crematoria, was not intended as a murder machine. To hear Mr. Irving tell it, there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz or any camp, the Nazis did not have a special hatred of Jews, and Hitler never knew about, let alone ordered, the “Final Solution.”
In light of this, unsurprisingly, Prof. Lipstadt referred to Mr. Irving as a Holocaust denier in her work. Irving sued her for libel in the UK, where the burden of proof is on the accused; Lipstadt and her donation-funded legal team, led by solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer, and by barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), the leader in his field, had to prove that there were gas chambers used for murder at Auschwitz.
In addition to the thundering moral authority of the story, the movie thrives as a tense courtroom drama. As a former law library aide, I was also pleased that full credit was given to the researchers who prepared the case from thousands and thousands of documents. Fans of Downtown Abbey and Midsomer Murders will enjoy the explanation of the British legal system, as well as the delightful accents and manners.
The acting is excellent. Weisz portrays Lipstadt as not only a voice crying out for justice, but a human being who laughs, grows tired of court proceedings, and breaks down in the face of an evil that words cannot convey. Scott’s Julius is charmingly reserved and, when necessary, a calculating legal genius. Wilkinson’s Rampton is somewhat grouchy and provides the comic relief, which comes when needed but never disrespectfully. We discover Rampton’s gruffness is only a defense mechanism; during a forensic investigation of Auschwitz, in what is one of the most powerful shots in the film, he stands before the thousands and thousands of victims’ shoes, the horrifying scale of the murder fixing him to the spot.
Spall plays Irving with conviction. This is not a cartoon villain: this is a man of means and formidable intellect who delights in causing controversy and pain. In his opening argument, he claims he deserves financial compensation because the label of Holocaust denier is like “a yellow star [of David].” That actually comes from the trial transcript. You will want to punch him by the end of the movie not just for what he says, but for the disgusting, unquestioning confidence with which he says it.
It is agonizing to watch a man, divorced from reality, allergic to facts, indifferent to the feelings of others, carry on at length and enjoy the sound of his own voice. In our own lives, we certainly have encountered such a person, even if he or she were not so offensive as an out-and-out fan of Hitler. In our lives, and watching this movie, we want not to make the adversary believe as we do, but to realize they were wrong and feel shame.
Denial tells us there is no convincing people with such an ability to ignore and distort reality. What can be done, however, is to educate others who have not yet formed their views on an issue, insist on a true freedom of speech that allows lies to be exposed, and demand an end to the false equivalence of opinion based on an interpretation of the facts and opinion that willfully chooses to ignore them.
5/5 stars: Beautiful art that revitalizes viewers’ moral sense.
1/5 fraidy-cats: No gimmicks, no ghouls, but this is a movie about the Holocaust. You will want a stiff drink and a hug afterwards.
2/5 ick-factor: Images of the death camps in action are used sparingly, but the court testimony allows your imagination to do the rest.