Film Review – Denial (2016)

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Denial (2016)
Director: Mick Jackson
Writers: David Hare (screenplay), Deborah Lipstadt (based on the book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” by)
Stars: Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall

Runtime: 109 min

Reviewer: Andy Millward

Denial is one of those films telling of a momentous and symbolic episode in history, in this case the eventual defeat in court of a notorious holocaust denier, David Irving, in his action against Professor Deborah Lipstadt. Irving is undeniably a fascinating character, a controversial writer who has sold thousands of books, but not a true historian in the eyes of many professional historians, which subject debated in court in the film.

Why? Because where true academics follow the evidence, Irving has spent a career pursuing his defence of Hitler and the Nazis by rubbishing all evidence of the holocaust, using facts selectively to suit his own purposes, and, as alleged by Lipstadt in her book Denying The Holocaust, manipulating evidence to support his evolving argument.  To Lipstadt’s barrister Richard Rampton, Irving is nothing short of a liar.

Denying the Holocaust is, of course, a criminal offence in Germany, Austria and other countries, but not in the UK. Not only that but the UK’s quaint and frankly appalling libel laws put the burden of proof on the accused, not the plaintiff, so it is hardly surprising Irving chose to bring his suit in London, in full knowledge that he would publicise his cause without having to prove a single statement. Lipstadt on the other hand, would have to demonstrate under the stiffest cross-examination that her case for the holocaust could be proven beyond doubt, which as Rachel Weisz‘s prettified Lipstadt in the film eloquently states is contrary to natural justice.

However, after choosing the “nuclear defence” option (ie. To prove Irving deliberately lied in order to continue and gain sympathy for Hitler), Lipstadt’s legal team, led by solicitor Anthony Julius (the deeply fashionable Andrew Scott), believe it works to her advantage by outraging public sympathy.  Lipstadt demurs, but the legal strategy straight jackets her defence by preventing her questioning survivors – since Irving could then question them directly.  Then there is the question of funding.  No doubt about it – the American had/has both hands tied behind her back.

There is, of course, the essential background to convey on the subject matter, or at least a smattering of evidence. This is done in part through a visit to Auschwitz as Richard Rampton QC (the quietly effective Tom Wilkinson) dispassionately gathers proof to discredit Irving, while Lipstadt is overcome by the sheer horror painted on the walls.

The relationship between the two is the principle dynamic of the film, since Rampton faces Lipstadt’s accuser and acts as her mouthpiece in court. While Lipstadt rails against the advice not to appear as a witness, nor yet to use the testimony of survivors, Rampton is ultimately proven correct in his strategy to focus on Irving and Irving alone.  Over time a grudging, and eventually a warm respect grows. but the only direct confrontation between accuser and accused is Irving’s infiltration of Lipstadt’s lecture at the beginning of the film.

What of Irving?  Even his enemies agree he is no fool, and certainly a complex character.  Julius is quoted as saying Irving is oddly impressive in his initial statements, and it is his intelligence that makes Irving appear sinister and conniving.

That Irving is single-minded in his best for vindication is elliptically elucidated by the sophisticated and perspicacious Mr Justice Grey (Alex Jennings), much to Lipstadt’s alarm; Grey points out that Irving believes his deceit that the holocaust is largely an invention, regardless of whether he has forged evidence to justify it. In this reading he could be Machiavellian in pursuit of what he considers the greater truth, though as Lipstadt makes amply clear, “the Holocaust did happen.”

As portrayed by the estimable Tim Spall, Irving maintains a certain dignity, almost nobility – without ever quite losing the air of a scoundrel or con man.  He loses no opportunity to play to the gallery and gain headlines at the expense of the defence, even where his facts are eventually torn down by Rampton, brick by brick.  For example, from Wikipedia:

Irving tries to discredit evidence for gas chambers at Auschwitz, claiming there were no holes on the roof for the Zyklon B gas crystals to be introduced. His soundbite “no holes, no holocaust” dominates the media coverage.

The film makes amply clear this is not true, whatever Irving’s stage managed soundbites might have suggested, using expert witness Robert Jan van Pelt (Mark Gatiss.)

In the context of this trial, demonstrating Irving was wrong is not hard; demonstrating he intended to lie and deceive is an abstract concept that has defeated many a fine legal mind, one which Irving attempts to defend by calling his factual errors “mistakes”, though the only other expert witness portrayed, Professor Richard J Evans (John Sessions), comprehensively demolishes the notion of a mistake by analysing the selective use of language as Irving takes from source material and inserts in his books to give a wholly misleading impression.  No doubt there were other such examples in the trial.

But ultimately this is a film not designed to record the minutia of court proceedings, entertaining and occasionally instructive though the highlights portrayed undoubtedly are.  Some have argued that a longer film with more direct testimony from the trial would have made for a more effective movie, though that was not the goal of director Mick Jackson, nor the hugely eminent screenwriter David Hare.

Denial is a narrative designed to both the rights and responsibilities of free speech, and about the nature of truth, here expressed in terms of the subtle shades of difference between mistakes made in the history of a contentious series of events and the deliberate falsification of such events based on personal prejudice and antisemitism such that they can be believed or confused by people who were born after the war and for whom hatred of Hitler and the Third Reich can be swayed by systematic manipulation of facts and by attacking those who would seek to ensure the truths are implanted permanently into our cultural memory.

In the light of more recent events, Irving’s subsequent denial that he lost the trial sounds eerily like Trump telling a bottomless pit of lies while accusing the media of creating “fake news.”  In the TV and Internet age, nothing is as it appears and any statement, repeated with frequency, becomes accepted as “truth” – unless you can come up with a better viral campaign to supplant it.

Irving’s defeat, no matter how it was window-dressed, was a victory for truth, but perhaps one trick missed was in considering the impact of an Irving victory, which at some stages looked a distinct possibility.  That would mean that history could be entirely rewritten to suit the case of anyone who shouts loud enough to be believed.  To true historians, that is unthinkable, but in that eventuality I doubt there would have been a film.