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Film review: Rachel Weisz and 'Denial' take on Holocaust denial

Veteran British film and TV director Mick Jackson’s latest film is based on the memoir History on Trial. Its author, Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor and author of Denying the Holocaust, was accused of libel by a prominent Holocaust denier and revisionist historical writer, David Irving. The film depicts the research involved in preparing for the 1996 trial, the trial itself, and the public reaction, with a focus on Irving and Lipstadt.

Like a great many movies based on good books, it does not quite live up to its source. History on Trial is a readable and thorough account of the entire episode, with proper attention given to the central issues involved: the importance of truth in scholarship, and the dangers of allowing history to be falsified to serve a personal or political agenda. Denial skims over these matters, in order to provide a good courtroom drama and an interestingly quirky pair of adversaries.

The initial scenes set up the situation in a colourful way. Professor Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), while taking questions following a public lecture, is confronted by audience member David Irving (Timothy Spall), who aggressively challenges her statements, then waves a handful of money over his head, offering $1,000 to anyone who can provide evidence of mass exterminations at Auschwitz. Irving, we come to learn, is a flamboyant publicity-seeker on behalf of the neo-fascist groups he champions, and his efforts to rehabilitate Hitler’s reputation. Shortly after this incident, Lipstadt receives notice that she is being sued for libel, based on her references to David Irving’s writings as false and as ‘Holocaust denial.’The dialogue during the actual courtroom scenes were, reportedly, taken directly from the trial records; these scenes have a realistic feel to them, in spite of the natural drama of some of the testimony. The courtroom does not make an appearance until well into the film, however. The lengthy period leading up to the trial is played for suspense and emotional impact, as Lipstadt works to raise funds for the trial and worries about the consequences should she lose, and Irving makes the most of the publicity the case brings to his writings.

The preparation for the case is turned into a comedy of manners, in which the British legal team are constantly at odds with all-American Lipstadt, whose character is given an exaggerated New York accent and a brash demeanour. Lipstadt’s own book on the trial simply describes the approach she and her legal counsel chose, and explains the reasons behind the choice, implying that she agreed with them; by her own account, only minor disputes arose between them. The film, however, shows Lipstadt in constant disagreement with her team, complaining of being left out of decisions, expressing outrage at their refusal to call death-camp survivors as witnesses, petulantly questioning their every move and even their motives. The intention seems to be to provide additional drama, and to give Lipstadt a spirited, charmingly cantankerous quality with which the audience will identify; but instead she comes across as querulous and illogical. The film has inadvertently made even the horrible David Irving a more likeable character than their main protagonist, a disastrous failure for a movie of this kind.The courtroom scenes are well done, and suspense over the (already well known) outcome is maintained; but the core material is somewhat glossed over in favour of focusing on the emotions of the two litigants, to the extent that the solid evidence of Irving’s distortions and falsehoods has far less impact than it should. Even the significance of the case is discussed mainly as it relates emotionally to Deborah Lipstadt. Some of the most thought-provoking considerations are all but omitted from the story (perhaps because they are better expressed in print than on film), such as the ambivalence of certain publishers of David Irving’s work, who have no interest in providing antisemitic extremists with a platform, yet are reluctant to censor unconventional thinking.

This is a reasonably well made drama, and with an excellent cast, but one which misses a great opportunity. Significant questions about truth and deception can be dealt with in an entertaining way, as we’ve seen in recent films such as Spotlight and Truth, or even older ones like Twelve Angry Men or To Kill a Mockingbird. Denial misses the mark in masking the trial’s larger implications with conventional melodrama. It is watchable enough; but given the choice, just read the book.

Monica Reid. 

For further viewing:

Mr Death, a 1999 biography by respected documentarian Errol Morris, outlines the life of Fred Leuchter, an eccentric, self-appointed expert on execution devices, who was hired by Holocaust denier spokesmen to find proof that Auschwitz was never used for mass executions. Director Morris felt that Leuchter would be dismissed by viewers as ridiculous, but Deborah Lipstadt, who was given a preview of the unfinished footage, feared that portraying Leuchter without debunking his ideas might legitimise him.

Ararat, a 2002 drama by Atom Egoyan, explores the 1915 Armenian genocide, and its continual official denial by Turkey, through the lives of a family of descendants living in Canada.

An Unlikely Obsession (2011), an informative one-hour documentary based on Sir Martin Gilbert’s book, Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship, covers Churchill’s Zionism and his response to the rise the Nazi party.