The infamous Lipstadt-Irving libel battle gets a trim new David Hare film adaptation starring Rachel Weisz—just in time for the rise of Trump
By James Kirchick
Near the end of Denial, the boyfriend of a young defense lawyer awakens in the middle of the night to find his beloved laboring hard on her case. She is serving on the defense team of Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory University historian whom the British author David Irving sued for libel after she called him a Holocaust denier. Beseeching her to come to bed, the man states that he cannot understand her “obsession” with an event that took place so many decades prior. “At some point, isn’t everyone going to have to let go?” he asks.
Anyone remotely interested in the Holocaust has likely been confronted, in some form or another, with this charge of “obsession.” Occasionally, as in the aforementioned scene, the accusation is the product of nothing more objectionable than historical ignorance and naiveté. For how is it possible not to be “obsessed” with an event so enormous as the unprecedently systematic industrial-scale extermination of 6 million people due solely to their ethnic origin? (Indeed, even using such a word—“event”—to describe the Shoah seems cruelly inadequate.) If anything, we are not transfixed enough by the Holocaust.
More often, however, the allegation of “obsession” is a sinister one, meant to slander its targets as opportunists. In this construal, Jews “exploit” the Holocaust to earn sympathy points, or, more perversely, as a means of bilking restitution money or diplomatic cover for the state of Israel, itself perpetrator of the very sorts of crimes Jews accuse the Germans of having committed.
It was the latter, wholly cynical meaning of “obsession” that Irving imputed to world Jewry. Noxious as this assertion may be, it still accepts the Shoah’s authenticity. What rightfully earned Irving the label of “denier” was his contention that the Holocaust as we’ve come to understand it—the deliberate, methodical attempt on the part of the Nazi leadership to annihilate every last Jewish man, woman, and child from the face of the Earth—is itself a massive lie, from the claimed number of Jewish victims (“of the order of 100,000 or more”) to the causes of their death (not, in the main, premeditated murder but diseases such as typhus). It wasn’t until 1988, however, relatively late in his long career as an amateur historian, that Irving would become a full-blown denier with his embrace of the notion that the Nazi gas chambers did not exist. “More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz,” he once declared in his trademark caustic style.
What distinguished Irving from most other run-of-the-mill cranks and fascists who deny the Holocaust is that he had once been a mildly respectable military historian, if one curiously charitable to Adolf Hitler. In the book that spurred Irving’s libel suit, Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt chronicles how Irving went from being an author with unconventional views about World War II to an outright falsifier of history. The key event in his transformation, she wrote, was his embrace of the pseudoscientific “report” by a self-proclaimed American execution expert named Fred A. Leuchter claiming that the gassing facilities at Auschwitz had been used not to kill human beings but lice. (Leuchter was the subject of an eerily fascinating 1999 Errol Morris documentary, Mr. Death.) Though refuting the actual purpose of the gas chambers definitively established him as a Holocaust denier, Irving’s prior “revisionism” was hardly more historically sound.
Simply for calling him what he was, Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, were hit with a libel lawsuit by Irving in 1996. In one of Denial’s early scenes, Lipstadt, portrayed by Rachel Weisz, reacts with disbelief as her solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), explains the intricacies of British libel law. Because it puts the burden proof on the defendant, Lipstadt, if she opted to contest the case, would have to, in effect, prove the truth of the Holocaust in order to validate her contention that Irving was denying established fact. Considering how Lipstadt, on principle, refuses to debate Holocaust deniers, Irving’s decision to bring suit against her was a cruel yet clever way of forcing her to engage with him. Stuck with the choice of letting Irving claim victory or exposing his calumnies, Lipstadt—who proudly tells Julius that her parents named her after the biblical female warrior—chooses to fight.
What follows, as Lipstadt journeys to London, is a fish-out-of-water legal drama wherein a brash, Jewish American history professor from New York must navigate her way through staid and forbidding British institutions. While Julius (a prominent British Jew who successfully won Princess Diana her generous divorce settlement and has since gone on to publish an acclaimed history of anti-Semitism in England) prepares the case behind the scenes, arguing before the judge is barrister Richard Rampton (the outstanding Tom Wilkinson), a classic British eccentric who keeps sandwiches in his cupboard and masters German within a year so that he can read the original Nazi documents Irving distorts. Throughout the film, Lipstadt’s forthright personal style rushes up against the wall of her lawyers’ conservative, risk-averse legal strategy. She is a passionate, outspoken woman who wants to scream obvious truths to the world (the Holocaust happened, David Irving is a lying bigot) but must defer to the prerogatives of British understatement. When Lipstadt’s lawyers inform her that she will not take the stand (as doing so would distract from the heart of the case—her written words), she is dejected. Lipstadt is similarly crestfallen when told that no survivors will testify, though that initial sense of outrage dissipates once the stomach-churning image of Irving’s potential cross-examination takes root.
Written by the British playwright David Hare (who also adapted the Holocaust-themed novel The Reader for the screen), Denial occasionally veers into didacticism, perhaps inevitable given the technicality of the subject matter. Though Hare is one of Britain’s most acclaimed contemporary dramatic writers, his greatest skill here is editing. The film’s best scenes are those that take place in the courtroom, where Hare crafted dialogue completely verbatim from the hundreds of hours of trial transcripts and where Irving—an egotist who, like most frauds, suffers from delusions of grandeur—represented himself. If the character of Irving (bravely played by Timothy Spall as an ultimately pathetic, rather than purely evil, villain) and his motives remain obscure, it’s entirely intentional. Hare, according to the film’s publicity materials, was not interested in writing “a portrait of an anti-Semite,” and Irving is therefore seen entirely from the perspective of Lipstadt and her allies.
Denial arrives at an important time. While the sort of historical mendacity that consigned the likes of David Irving to permanent ignominy (and a jail sentence in Austria) is not widely believed in the West, it’s alive and well in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where a theocratic regime denies the Holocaust while promising another. Across the Arab world, where any conspiracy theory about Jewish perfidy is guaranteed to earn widespread acceptance, only 8 percent of people believe that the Holocaust has been “accurately described by history” (the same poll that reported this result, conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2014, also found that just over half the world’s population had even heard of the Holocaust). Whereas Holocaust denial is a crime in some Western European countries, in Turkey it is conversely the assertion of the 1915-1917 Armenian genocide that risks one a jail sentence. Indeed, it was the widespread ignorance and denial of this crime that inspired Hitler’s own campaigns of mass murder some two-and-a-half decades later. In a 1939 speech delivered on the eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, a fateful event that would make possible the extermination of millions of Jews in the old Pale of Settlement, the führer infamously asked his generals, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
But there’s more to this film than just an exploration of Holocaust denial, a depraved pursuit that, in the West at least, remains the exclusive preserve of racists and anti-Semitic crackpots. Denial is ultimately a movie about the power of lies. Why do people believe patent falsehoods and find the men who utter them so seductive? Though Hare, Lipstadt, and the rest of the film’s production team could never have imagined it, their film—depicting a titanic battle between good and evil, truth versus deceit—resonates disturbingly in the age of Donald Trump, a man whose cascade of false assertions and authoritarian braggadocio is unprecedented among the ranks of major American presidential nominees and echo that of a despotic state propagandist. As did Irving, Trump lies about things relatively immaterial (like whether he once impersonated his own publicist) and monstrous (that the first black president of the United States is not a natural-born citizen). While a complacent political class abetted Hitler’s rise in the erroneous belief that the nascent dictator and his brownshirts could be controlled, so too has Trump been normalized by legions of ostensibly responsible people who know better.
“I have a terrible fear that if I’d been asked to draw up those plans, I might have agreed. Out of sheer weakness,” Rampton tells Lipstadt when she asks how a research trip to Auschwitz affected him. “The world is full of cowards, and I’m one of them.” And like Trump—the Queens boy eternally striving for recognition in Manhattan, whose entire presidential campaign appears to be a giant middle finger directed at the political and media establishment provoked by a richly deserved, 5-year-old act of humiliation meted out to him by the president of the United States at a black-tie Washington rubber chicken dinner—Irving constantly sought validation from the British elite he simultaneously despised. After the verdict is read in Lipstadt’s favor, Irving cheerily approaches Rampton with hand outstretched as if the two had just played a friendly match of tennis. (Rampton brusquely, and appropriately, rebuffs him).
Trump’s mendacity, in totality, may not be as morally hideous as Irving’s. His impulsive, indiscriminate lies are expressed not in the service of any discernable ideological agenda but rather his own personal advancement. Irving, meanwhile, carefully and painstakingly strung together a series of small, deceptively innocuous lies to advance a broad, wicked one: a conspiracy theory exonerating the most ruthless and depraved regime in human history. But if Trump’s lies are less heinous than those of Irving, he makes up for it with influence and power. Irving, after all, was widely discredited by the time he decided to sue Lipstadt, unable to find a publisher for his books, and reduced to delivering lectures at the Tampa Bay Best Western. Donald Trump is just a few mediocre debate performances and a financial crisis away from becoming the most powerful man on Earth.