You can refuse. You can disagree. You can object. You can argue. But none of those words is as charged as “denial,” with its multiple uses all implying injustice, unfairness, even bullying. The title of this film establishes immediately that the courtroom and media battle it depicts is not one of popularity, reputation, or consensus. It is about the core issue of proof — how we know what we know, and, in this case, what that means as we approach the time when everyone with a memory of the experience in question is gone.
The experience in question, in the most literal sense of the term, is the Holocaust. David Irving (Timothy Spall, all oily charm), a British self-described historian, wrote and lectured widely about his view that Hitler never ordered the killing of Jews in concentration camp and that in fact there were no gas chambers used for mass executions of Jewish prisoners. He was intentionally offensive — in both sense of the word. He said:
Ridicule alone isn’t enough, you’ve got to be tasteless about it. You’ve got to say things like ‘More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.’ Now you think that’s tasteless, what about this? I’m forming an association especially dedicated to all these liars, the ones who try and kid people that they were in these concentration camps, it’s called the Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust and Other Liars, ‘ASSHOLs’. Can’t get more tasteless than that, but you’ve got to be tasteless because these people deserve our contempt.
And he took his case to the classroom of a professor who specialized in the Holocaust, Emory’s Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz, feisty but thoughtful, with a red perm, bright scarves, and a Queens accent), to confront her in person, without notice but with a video camera. She refused to debate him, saying that it would legitimize his arguments. And she described him in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, as:
one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda. A man who is convinced that Britain’s great decline was accelerated by its decision to go to war with Germany, he is most facile at taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions.
He wanted more than a classroom confrontation after that. He filed a lawsuit against Lipstadt and her publisher, and he filed it in England, where the laws are more favorable for plaintiffs in libel cases. In the US, the person filing the suit has to prove his or her case. In the UK, it is up to the defendant to prove the truth of the statements made. In cinematic terms, the legal and physical setting heightens the inherent courtroom drama — all the wigs and posh accents and strangeness of the rules boost the theatricality of the presentation, especially after Lipstadt learns that neither she nor the Holocaust survivors who are vitally concerned with the trial will be allowed to testify. For Lipstadt, not being permitted to use her voice was a whole separate category of denial.
This is a compelling courtroom drama that goes to the deepest questions not just of Holocaust history or any history but of how we know what we know and who we believe. It is always tempting to say “let’s listen to both sides.” But as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts.” The meticulous combing of Irving’s work to check footnotes and translate original documents (funded by Steven Spielberg and other donors) proved that Irving’s “conclusions” were based on misrepresentation. The meticulous combing of his shelves and shelves of diaries proved his bias. This is a compelling drama and an urgent reminder of the importance of rigorous challenges to unsubstantiated, malicious “history.”
Parents should know that this film deals with the Holocaust, with references to genocide and ethnic bigotry. It includes social drinking and some strong language.
Family discussion: What evidence would you want to see if you were the judge in this case? Should Professor Lipstadt have testified?
Interview: Holocaust Scholar Deborah Lipstadt on “Denial”
Posted on October 3, 2016 at 3:04 pm
Deborah Lipstadt, a distinguished historian and scholar, is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory. Her book Denial: Holocaust History on Trial is the basis for a new movie about a defamation lawsuit filed by a David Irving, because she referred to him as a “Holocaust denier.” Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt in the film.
In an interview, Professor Lipstadt talked about what we must do, at this moment when the last witnesses to the Holocaust are nearing the end of their lives, to make sure that the history is accurately communicated to future generations, and about the real basis for claims that the Holocaust did not happen. One way to tell the difference between those with intellectual integrity and those who try to suppress the truth is in their willingness to be transparent. Lipstadt has posted the entire trial transcript online so that anyone who wants to review the arguments and documentation has access to the entire record.
The film makes clear your frustration with the scope and procedures of the trial, which took place in London because British law is more favorable to plaintiffs in defamation suits. The standard of proof is different in a courtroom than it is in academia.
Historians reach proof by consensus. In academics we reach a consensus and we know that consensus might change but the proof we had to show in the courtroom is quite different. The lawyers and I agreed that the courtroom is not generally a place for history, to prove history but this was an exception to the rule in the way it structured itself, in the way we fought to have it structured.
People often say and I in fact said it for many years, “What’s going to happen, certainly in terms of remembrance in general but denial specifically, when there are no more survivors?” In a way our film is a testimony to the ability of documents to speak for what happened and to prove what happens. It took work, it took following the footnotes back to the sources and showing that when David Irving said, “I have a document that said that Adolf Hitler tried to stop the outbreaks from Kristallnacht and you look at the document, it doesn’t say that. It said, “Stop the arson.” What was happening is fire departments were saying that whole blocks are going up in smoke because you’re burning down the synagogue but it’s next to two buildings etc. etc. So Irving takes that one specific and makes it into a general. He takes a sequence of events, and he changes the sequence to make it look like what happened after really happened before. We brought k 25-30 instances of tracking Irving’s footnotes back to the sources and showing a distortion, an invention, a change of date, falsification, what Richard Evans from Cambridge called the tissue of lies.
It is one thing for a single outlier to make these claims, but I have been shocked at the number of people not just taking Irving’s views seriously but supporting his work.
Go to Amazon and look at the new edition of my book. Read the comments. You have the war of the words on the Amazon comments section. Once I wanted to delete and then I said no, they’re too valuable as a teaching tool.
In the movie your character wears very colorful scarves. Is that something that comes from you?
Yes, those are my scarves in fact that orange scarf I was thinking of wearing this morning is the one Rachel Weisz wears in the poster.
How does it feel to have Rachel Weisz playing you? I have to say she got your Queens accent very well.
Some people say oh, “The Queens accent is so overdone.” They clearly did not hear me speak, you know. You should hope and pray if they should ever make a film about you, that you get someone with the wellsprings of talent that Rachel Weisz has, and with the humanity, with the menschkeit and professionalism. She is a professional’s professional. She would call me up the night before and say, “Record this scene for me. Tell me how you would say this.” The scene in the lecture room where he is confronting me, she called me that morning before she was going to film. I was in Barcelona for a conference and she tracked me down. She said, “Deborah tell me what you were feeling, what was it like?” and I said, “Rachel, it was a horrible, horrible moment. I’m used to having as you know some measure of control, I was completely out of control… He was completely out of control. I didn’t know how to take charge of the situation. I saw the students looking and I was thinking maybe I have something to say if I started to challenge him it would elevate him. It was a debate I wouldn’t want to have. And yet I knew he was capturing the students and getting into their minds.” She stands there and she is standing her ground, saying, “I’m not going to debate,” you but you can see in her face that she knows she has lost in that setting.
How do we respond when deniers insist that all they want is to “hear both sides?”
It’s not just the Holocaust. Birtherism, Nine Elevenerism, Sandy Hook “truthers.” When David Hare sent me his original notes on how he was going to structure the screenplay, he sent me a memo 10/20 pages you know, on the cover there was a quote from Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. I saw that and said, “We’ve got the right person.” That was very, very powerful to me. There are not two sides to facts, whether historical facts or science.
There are not two sides to every story. There are facts, there are opinions, and there are lies. If I will say to you, “It’s my opinion that the earth is flat,” you would say, “Get this woman help!” And you would say that’s not an opinion, that’s a lie parading as an opinion. What Holocaust deniers want is to provide a cover for racism and anti-Semitism. When David Duke when ran for governor of Louisiana he did not run wearing his bed sheets and Ku Klux Klan garb. You wear a suit and you look reasonable. Charles Murray wrote The Bell Curve; it’s racism parading as facts. David Irving brought a number of witnesses most of whom he had to subpoena to get them to appear. One witness who did not have a subpoena came of his own volition was a professor from Cal State Long Beach, who calls himself an evolutionary psychologist, and what he has written on Jews is just high-class anti-Semitism. He is not just an anti-Semite; he is a misogynist. His “testimony” was just a file folder of newspaper clippings about where I had appeared or given speeches, the groups I spoke to. This was to prove his theory of some conspiracy. And then, when it was our turn, the barrister defending me did not even ask a single question. The solicitor could see I was about to explode. He came to me and turned me around so my back was to the gallery so people couldn’t see me and he said, “Deborah, that was the right thing to do, if Richard had cross-examined him it would suggest to the judge that we thought he had some validity and the judge clearly thought he was worthless.” They were right.
What is behind these kinds of denials?
How come nobody asks George W. Bush or Bill Clinton to prove where they were born? Obama was born in Hawaii, which is not contiguous but it is a part of the United States. Why not make a fuss over Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada? It’s a form of racism. You and I know that. Parading as a rational kind of question, parading, masquerading. Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism. You ask David Irving what motive the Jews would have to create such a widespread lie? And what he would say is a lot of what the Jews get out of the Holocaust is Israel and money. The Israel thing is not really historically true because it was really created 1945/46 because of British had to get out of their governing role in the region. And there would’ve been some Jewish entities there anyway; there were enough Jews living in Israel that there would’ve been something, but nonetheless that’s the popular perception. Well Israel and money speak right to the anti-Semitic stereotype of money and secret conniving power to accomplish their goals. They made up this myth so it fits right into the anti-Semitic template.
At its heart, Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a form of prejudice, think of the etymology pre-judged, I made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts. It’s utterly stupid, it’s utterly ludicrous but we fall into that trap. So that’s the point, the point is that well, how come David Irving believed that the Holocaust didn’t happen? It is the most documented genocide. I said it doesn’t make sense, I said then Holocaust does make sense, genocides does make sense. They do not believe it because the prism through which their view of the world is refracted is the anti-Semitic prejudicial conspiracy theory. The title of the movie reviews to denial in three senses: denial of the Holocaust, denial of reality and history, and then my denial of being able to speak.