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.
Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity
Intense and deeply disturbing Holocaust atrocities including shooting, gas chambers, graphic images
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
January 15, 2016
Date Released to DVD:
April 25, 2016
As we move past the time when there are living witnesses to the Holocaust who can tell us their stories, we need more than ever voices like first-time writer/director László Nemes to tell the stories. I know there are those who will shrug sheepishly and say that they just can’t handle another one. But each story is about a singular individual who had a singular experience. And this Oscar-winning drama is distinctively different in subject matter and in the form of storytelling. It deserves careful attention.
The Nazis took more than lives in the concentration camps. They took identities and they took souls. Saul (Géza Röhrig), the title character, is a Hungarian Jew in an unnamed extermination camp near the end of the war. Because Hungarian dictator Miklos Horthy cooperated with the Nazis but did not allow them to take the 800,000 Hungarian Jews until he could no longer prevent it in 1944 (see Walking with the Enemy), Saul has only been there a short time. Throughout the movie, the camera is close to his face or at his shoulder as he numbly tries to hold on to his life and to some sense of himself amidst the horrific slaughter and nightmarish chaos all around him. We get only glimpses.
In the very first moments, we see him standing silently as a reassuring German voice tells the new arrivals that there will be jobs and food for them, as soon as they clean off in a shower. They leave everything they brought with them, clothes, jewels, money, photos, in the outer room and then, naked, walk into the gas chamber, where they are killed.
What happens to Saul is worse than death. He is a Sonder-kommando, a prisoner forced to assist in this process, from making the new arrivals feel a little less hopeless to ransacking their belongings and removing the remains, which the Nazis will not dignify with the term “bodies.” They are called “pieces.” And he is forced to be a part of it.
Somehow, a boy, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, survives the gas chamber. He is still breathing. So he is sent to the doctor (another prisoner) to be killed and autopsied, to help make the killing process more efficient.
And that is Saul’s breaking point. He becomes convinced that the boy is his son, though it appears likely he never had a child. This may be manifestation of trauma-induced delusion, or it may be an adaptive mechanism to restore his shattered sense of the world. He knows he cannot save this both in life. But perhaps in death he can do one kindness and provide the boy with a religious burial, away from the discarded “pieces.” Increasingly desperate, contrary to his previous flat affect, Saul seeks a rabbi who can say the mourner’s prayer over the boy. Throughout the film, we see quick glimpses of the ways other prisoners hold on to some tiny element of control. For some, it may be keeping a record. For Saul, who seems to see very little of what is going on around him, it is giving a boy a better death.
This insistence on a sacred burial at any cost is a direct link to Sophocles’ 442 BC play Antigone, the final chapter in the Oedipus trilogy. Three thousand years of human history later, and someone is still finding meaning by refusing to make one final compromise.
Parents should know that this is a Holocaust movie with scenes of Nazi brutality and disturbing themes and images including gas chambers, shooting, suffocation, and dead bodies, some nude.
Family discussion: How does the style of this film help to convey the experience of the concentration camp? Why was this boy so important to Saul? What were the special issues faced by the Sonder-kommandos and the doctor?
If you like this, try: “Conspiracy,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Labyrinth of Lies”
Interview: Giulio Ricciarelli of Holocaust Drama “Labyrinth of Lies”
Posted on October 1, 2015 at 3:43 pm
Giulio Ricciarelli co-wrote and directed the German film “Labyrinth of Lies,” based on the real-life story of the courageous post-WWII German prosecutors who insisted on investigating the atrocities of the concentration camps and prosecuting those responsible. Surrounded by former Axis and Allies officials who wanted to put the past behind them and move on to fighting the communists. He talked to me about the inspiration for the film, what really happens to the movie’s couple after the ambiguous ending, and why the owners of the vintage cars used in the film drove him crazy.
The movie’s opening takes us into a world almost impossible to imagine, where concentration camp survivors are living with the people who imprisoned and abused them and the world has almost no information about what would later come to be called the Holocaust. An artist is offered a light by a teacher watching some children in a school playground. When he bends over to reach the flame, he sees the teacher’s hand and recognizes him as a former Nazi. “That symbolized the theme of the movie, the tormented meeting the tormenter. And the second thing that was important that I wanted it to be a teacher because if you imagine him teaching children that is so horrible and that’s something that actually happened a lot. And so we had these two elements and I knew that as a filmmaker I needed a point of seeming harmony in perfect world, an innocent world. A school is like that. So it was important, the tree and the school and the children playing. And then the movie starts and you realize there is something very wrong there and so it was important to have this. There is a German word that means like a mix of sane and beautiful. It’s like an untouched world.”
The “big complex task” of the film was making what is very familiar to us unfamiliar, so we could feel the shock and horror of the young Germans who came of age after the war and did not know about the “Final Solution.” The movie’s main character is fictional, a young lawyer working as a prosecutor, though some of the other characters are based on historical figures. “That‘s why we choose this young naïve main character, hoping that we enter his world, we start looking through his eyes and the reaction I get is great. It seems to be working with go back in time and go with it. The other thing is esthetically of course; first of all you got to plot what you just mentioned.” The very pervasiveness of the portrayal of the Holocaust created a separate challenge as well. It is so well known that it is impossible to replicate in a persuasive way. The audience at some level always knows it is a re-creation. “The audience can almost hear the director say, ‘Okay lunch.’ And you see actors who are well fed. So I said, ‘Okay, we will not have any of that. We’ll not even have testimony like an actor acting as if he was in a camp and we will trust that these iconic images will come when we give them room to come and the audience.” And so, when the scene comes where a survivor provides testimony for the first time to the lawyers, we do not see or hear him. We just see the reaction of the woman taking dictation, and we feel we know what she heard and saw.
One reason for the film was to recognize the courage of the lawyers who insisted on the truth. But just as important was showing that the only way to move forward after unthinkable inhumanity is to completely honest about it. “In Germany, anything we do politically or culturally is seen through that lens, that’s the reality and if you are talking about refugees if you are talking about Greece, if we talking about anything it’s all we see in the frame of this. The country who did that now does this. The thing is, you cannot deny it, that’s not the way, and you can’t leave it behind.” One way to do that is what he did here, finding a new way to tell the story by looking at a part that has not been told.
“I think what is important with our film is that it’s a not told story. I think what is most important is the movie doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the involvement of Germany as a whole because there is sometimes a tendency to show two evil Nazis and the rest of the population is confused. That’s not historical fact but at the same time not to sit on a moral high horse. That’s why the main character says, ‘I do not know what I would done.’ And if you look at the atrocities not just in Germany but all over the world the human beings are usually not heroes but they go along and they do the easy thing and they don’t risk their own lives and there are heroes but they are few and far between.” He described the continual presence of this history in Germany as an iceberg. “Under the waterline it’s still huge and it’s still usually influential in Germany, it’s certainly the biggest influence in German politics and culture today.” Everyone in Germany was supportive of the film and cooperative in helping to get it made, including Frankfort, where they filmed on location at the places where the events actually happened. One of the most striking images is the rows and rows of documents. The real archive no longer exists in that form, but they found another storage facility with old documents and used camera angles to make it look biggers.
But one challenge they faced was the vintage cars they needed for the shoot. “First of all they are very expensive, but you know what the biggest problem is? They are owned by collectors, so in the morning you always get that spit shine car and they would say, ‘Don’t dirty it up,’ but we have to spray dust over it and sprinkle it with dust and tell them to bring it back dirty but the next day it’s clean again.”
He has been very moved by the response to the film from people who still struggle with the truth of what happened. “And how much rawness there still is. Like a woman came to me and said, ‘We have a box from our grandfather and our family and it’s closed as we are all afraid to open it, because we don’t want to know how grandpa died in the war.’ Or the man who shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you for this film,’ and then he went five steps and he came back and he looked me straight in the eyes and he said very quietly, ‘My father was a bad man.'”
The movie ends on a positive note about the prosecution of those responsible for wartime atrocities, including cooperation with the Mossad agents who tracked down Adolf Eichmann. But it is ambiguous when it comes to the future of the couple in the film. I pressed Ricciarelli to tell me what he thought would happen to them after the movie. He told me he shot two endings but went with the one he thought was more realistic. Still, he smiled and admitted “there is a ray of hope.”
It is one of the most famous paintings of the 20th Century, a masterwork by Gustav Klimt, a portrait of his friend Adele Bloch-Bauer. It was confiscated by the Nazis during WWII. And then, 60 years later, it became the subject of an international lawsuit as Bloch-Bauer’s niece sued the Austrian government for its return. That case was the subject of three documentaries, Adele’s Wish, Stealing Klimt, and The Rape of Europa. “The Woman in Gold,” a new feature film about the lawsuit with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, will be in theaters this spring.