The Reality of ‘Denial’

Rachel Weisz stars in true-life Holocaust courtroom drama

Oct. 21, 2016
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Reality can sometimes be difficult to discern through the fog of conflicting interpretations and the labyrinth of paradox, but it exists. However, recent years have witnessed the proliferation of counterfactual narratives and alternative realities, driven sometimes by the understandable distrust of “experts” who have often been proven wrong. And yet, there is right and wrong. Reality by its nature is real, and in the realm of crime scenes and historical events (often the same things), the truth should be discerned by weighing the evidence. 

One of the most egregious counterfactual narratives, Holocaust denial, went to court in 2000 when British history writer David Irving sued American historian Deborah Lipstadt. Irving demanded damages, accusing her of destroying his career by publically denouncing him as a Holocaust denier. The suit was brought in the UK, where the defendant shoulders the burden of proof in libel cases. Lipstadt’s counsel counterattacked, putting Irving’s credibility on trial. 

Denial is a well-paced dramatization that puts human faces on the case without dumbing down the issues. Rachel Weisz stars as Lipstadt, depicting her as an engaging educator and fiery champion for affirming the established facts about the Holocaust from those who seek to deny or diminish. Timothy Spall plays her nemesis, Irving, as a scowling troll who matches her determination to win. Irving is the sort of figure who has become oversized in today’s culture—the maverick, the self-taught authority, the outsider challenging the orthodoxy of the establishment. In an age just before Google, he was able to maintain a double life as a revisionist historian with contracts from major publishers and—just beyond public view—an agitator happy to provide inspiration to conclaves of racists and neo-Nazis. 

Drawn from Lipstadt’s memoir of events, Denial becomes a remarkable courtroom drama. In effect, the veracity of the Holocaust and the methods of glimpsing truth through writing history were on trial before the bewigged, oak-paneled majesty of Britain’s High Court. Lipstadt is overruled repeatedly by her legal team, led by the esteemed barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). They do not allow her to testify, preferring to make Irving the focus, and refuse to bring Holocaust survivors to the stand, fearing Irving would confuse and humiliate them. Rampton’s strategy is a triumph of mind over heart, analysis over emotion. “What feels best isn’t necessarily what works best,” he tells the impatient Lipstadt. “Stay seated. Button your lip. Win.”

Rampton proceeds to dismantle Irving’s reputation before a judge who carefully listened, weighed the evidence and pronounced Lipstadt innocent by reason of Irving’s falsification of history. The judge ruled that Irving had deliberately distorted history in service to a racist political agenda.

Denial glances sideways at another issue: the right of fools and liars to have their say in the public arena. The events portrayed in the film took place in the childhood of the Internet, before the proliferation of social networks that have provided fools and liars of all descriptions with an infinite number of arenas and the ability to sway the sentiment of a public that no longer trusts politicians, academics and the mainstream media.


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