The Holocaust is hardly a new topic in cinema. Every year, filmmakers in Hollywood, Indiewood, and abroad find new angles to tackle in one of the most appalling chapters in modern world history. Yet, though it’s an odiously fast-growing movement on both sides of the pond, Holocaust denial has never been explored on the big screen. “Denial,” about the 1990s libel lawsuit brought by English historical author and Holocaust denier David Irving against American academic Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books, does just that, with a lively fortitude that challenges legal and moral relativism.
Clad in an orange perm and the unflattering tweeds of a New York intellectual, Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt in her third great performance of this season. (Count “The Light Between Oceans” and “Complete Unknown” as the vehicles for her other two.) We meet the professor of Jewish studies as she’s giving what’s now an infamous 1994 Emory University lecture about Holocaust deniers. Her book on the topic is newly published, and just as she’s asked why she doesn’t respond directly to those who claim this mass genocide never happened, Irving (Timothy Spall) stands up in the audience and challenges her to a debate. He’s physically ejected but two years later finds a way to force the issue: He sues her through the English courts on the grounds that her book, now titled Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, has “ruined his career.”
On this matter, the real-life Lipstadt has explained to The New York Times why his lawsuit surprised her.
Explaining to a reporter why he had eliminated all references to the Holocaust from a new edition of his book on Hitler, [Irving] said: “If something didn’t happen, then you don’t even dignify it with a footnote.” He denied the use of gas chambers to kill Jews systematically, argued that there was no ofﬁcially sanctioned Third Reich plan to annihilate European Jewry, and contended that Hitler was “probably the biggest friend the Jews had in the Third Reich. He was the one doing everything he could to prevent nasty things happening to them.” Given his comments, I never imagined that I was doing anything potentially controversial when I described him in my book as a “Hitler partisan wearing blinkers” who “has been accused of skewing documents and misrepresenting data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions.” I wrote that “on some level Irving seems to conceive himself as carrying on Hitler’s legacy.” My comments were harsh but, given what he said, seemed quite legitimate.
I include her comments at such length because, ironically, the legal team assembled to defend this brilliant and hyper-articulate woman decides the best strategy is to keep her mum during the trial. In the English courts, the onus is on the defendant to prove their innocence, and Irving, no doubt in an effort to gain more publicity and achieve the stand-off he craves, is defending himself. The issue at hand is not whether the Holocaust took place but whether Deborah accurately described Irving, in which case her comments will not qualify as libel. (That this is even up for debate is an indication that the British definition of libel differs radically from the American definition.) Deborah’s solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who represented Lady Diana in her divorce case, does not want Deborah or any Holocaust survivors to testify because doing so will allow Irving to engage them in the very debate they do not wish to legitimize by discussing. “The Holocaust is no more a matter of opinion than the idea that the world is round,” says Deborah early on. (She’s a firecracker.)
Like all the best courtroom dramas, “Denial” builds its case methodically, introducing pieces to the puzzle with an appealing rhythm that gains momentum after a sobering “fact-finding mission” to Auschwitz. Lipstadt is first amused, then appalled by the fussy anachronisms of the English legal system, especially when she learns that hard-drinking, seemingly unsympathetic Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) will be representing her in court. (In England, barristers and solicitors have a division of labor not found among American lawyers.) An outspoken advocate of Jewish rights since her student days, she is not accustomed to kowtowing to The Man in any form. She is used to fighting on her own behalf, and now she must trust the very systems that failed to adequately protect her people not fifty years before. As a Jewish American, I view her wariness as a powerful example of the trust issues many of us bring to every public situation post-World War II.
Mining Haris Zambarloukos’s atmospheric cinematography – rarely has London fog served as such an effective political metaphor – director Mick Jackson (“L.A. Story,” “Temple Grandin”) wisely steps back and trusts Weisz to convey this conflict through her quickly moving features. Spall, too, electrifies. Smirking and mugging, his Irving is just on the right side of buffoonishly odious. You believe both that he’s a sociopath who craves attention at any cost, and that he believes what he’s spewing. Squint your eyes, and it’s easy to imagine him as a more orange-colored figure currently dominating the American landscape – a fact that only amplifies the wallop “Denial” delivers when Irving receives his comeuppance in the forum of his choice. Though I knew the outcome of the trial, I still found myself pumping my fist in the air when the verdict was announced.
English people complain all the time about American actors’ pathetic imitations of their accents, and with good reason. But rarely do those from the U.K. receive similar criticism for their American accents, which, let’s face it, are equally as bad. As Lipstadt, London native Weisz speaks in a Queens accent that is both braying and flat – more annoying than anything you’re ever likely to hear on a New York City subway. I mention this because this is the only false note in this otherwise spot-on, eminently satisfying procedural thriller about a rare moment when the system actually worked for David rather than Goliath.