Mick Jackson (2016)
A Narcissistic blowhard, fond of spouting untenable theories without any real evidence, denies that he is bigoted despite his own recorded words to the contrary, and wants to sue anyone calling him on his lies. And still a gaggle of deplorable fringe groups want to support him because they refuse to believe anything that contradicts what they have decided they want to believe. Obviously I’m talking about Holocaust denier David Irving in Mick Jackson’s current film Denial, a (non-academic) British “historian” who authored several books with the avowed intent of salvaging Adolph Hitler’s reputation and denying the truth of the prevailing historical view of the Holocaust. Sure, some Jews died. It was war. People die in wars. And there was typhus. People die of diseases. And there couldn’t have been six million. And the cyanide? That was just for killing lice. Neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups love this kind of thing.
Jackson’s film is a dramatization of the real-life case in which American scholar Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University and author of the book Denying the Holocaust (1993), was sued for libel by Irving, whom she had called a liar and falsifier of evidence in her book. Irving and her publisher, Penguin Books, refused to settle, and Lipstadt went to court to defend her claims, at the risk of giving Irving a forum in which to spread his unorthodox views. David Hare (The Reader, The Hours) based the screenplay largely on Lipstadt’s later memoir, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (2005), as well as on the actual transcripts of the trial. He deserves credit for making an incredibly complex case accessible to the lay audience of the film.
As the film portrays it, Irving, played by Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner, The King’s Speech) disrupts a presentation by Lipstadt on her new book, waving around $1,000 and promising to give it to anyone who can show him a document signed by Adolph Hitler ordering the extermination of the Jews. His suit is filed shortly afterwards (September 5, 1996), in the British courts, charging that Lipstadt had done irreparable damage to his reputation by her claims against him in her book. Lipstadt, played by Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener, The Deep Blue Sea), is horrified to learn that in British courts, the burden of proof is on the defendant to prove that the claims are true—the opposite, of course, of American courts where there is an assumption of the defendant’s innocence.
This is just one of the basic things that an American film audience must learn about the British legal system in order to follow the courtroom drama that comprises the second half of the film. With Lipstadt, we learn that she must have a solicitor—in her case Anthony Julius (played by Andrew Scott—Moriarity in T.V.’s Sherlock)—who puts together her case, and a barrister—for her it is Richard Rampton (played by Tom Wilkinson of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Michael Clayton, In the Bedroom, etc.)—who argues the case in court.
Much of the drama outside the courtroom comes from Lipstadt’s squabbling with her legal team over their strategy. Essentially, that strategy consists of her keeping her mouth shut. As you might imagine, that is very difficult to do for someone whose whole occupation essentially involves standing up in front of people and espousing her views—and whose area of expertise is the Holocaust itself, which Irving has been denying. But as Rampton and Julius insist, they do not want to make it seem as if the Holocaust itself is on trial. Their strategy for winning is to focus on Irving himself, and to show where he has in fact falsified evidence deliberately to fit his preconceived views. For the same reason, Rampton and Julius will not call Holocaust survivors to the stand, since it would allow Irving, whose Narcissism has led him to represent himself in the trial, to cross examine them, and thus allow him to belittle and denigrate them. Lipstadt, of course, wants them to be able to tell their stories, “to give voice to the ones who didn’t make it,” as she says. The dead must be heard. Not at this trial, her lawyers tell her. For Lipstadt, it is like putting her conscience in the hands of someone else. She strains at the bit and rankles when Irving seems to have his way early in the trial.
A number of critics and audience members seem to feel the same way as Lipstadt in the film. Where is the excitement? Where are the impassioned speeches by lawyers and witnesses on the stand? Where is Richard Widmark passionately presenting in evidence films of the death camps made by liberating allied troops? Where is Burt Lancaster rising to give a passionate speech about the culpability of those who turned their backs on what they knew was happening (“Were we deaf? Dumb? Blind?). Where is the less passionate but nonetheless dramatic Spencer Tracy delivering a final judgment in a sobering condemnation of the human evil made manifest in the Final Solution? It’s not here, much as you may want it. We may have needed Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961, but we do not need it in 2016. What we need is what Jackson and Hare, taking their cue from the lawyers Rampton and Julius, have given us: a rational expose of intellectual dishonesty and of the moral vacuity of public discourse as practiced in contemporary society.
The David Irvings of 2016 are myriad, because social media have given anyone with a computer a public forum to express their views, no matter how ill-conceived, mendacious, ill-informed, ludicrous or dangerous they may be. Making much of these opinions, pretending they are just as valid as well-researched conclusions based on significant and appropriate evidence, is widespread, and the prevailing belief that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion can be easily, and dangerously, expanded to suggest that everyone’s opinion is therefore equally valid. It is not. An opinion is valid when it can be substantiated by actual evidence, not by bluster or by selective use of facts taken out of context.
It is clear in the film that some of Irving’s supporters suggested that his freedom of speech was being challenged. Never mind that he was the one that brought the suit (just an inconvenient fact that they could leave out when they formed their opinions). The truth of the matter is that he had published his opinions. He’d had his free speech. But like anyone exercising that right, he now had to actually face the consequences of that speech, which was to have the truth of his statements examined. Ultimately, this film is about more than Holocaust deniers. It’s about the importance of reasoned and objective examination of facts in order to come to the truth. It’s about calling bullshit what it is, and exposing deliberate or misinformed falsehoods and the prejudices that have led people to believe them. The film began shooting long before the current U.S. presidential campaign, but there will be inevitable comparisons. That is because this kind of public discourse has become the rule rather than the exception.
The film is itself an example of what it is trying to argue. It is a quiet rebuttal of Irving’s idiotic premises without validating them in any way with sentimentalism or outrage. No eloquent speeches by Lipstadt. No agonized memories from Survivors. Only Irving exposing his bigotry out of his own mouth, and Rampton pointing to some of the clear distortions of evidence, and obvious inconsistencies in his speculations.
The film works because of outstanding performances. Weisz is sympathetic as the tough defendant straining at the leash her attorneys have her on. Scott is witty, brilliant, and a bit self-satisfied and smug as the lawyer who got Princess Diana her divorce. Wilkinson is logical and dispassionate, frustrating Lipstadt by his unemotional visit with her to Auschwitz, during which she is there to pray and mourn, and he is there to make a forensic examination; but he has his “gotcha” moments in the courtroom, and has a chance there to bristle in anger at the monstrous egoism of some of Irving’s responses. But the outstanding performance of the film is Spall’s. He manages to bring to life a loathsome character who sincerely believes himself to be completely normal and expects to be admired for his contributions to the study of history. So assured is he of the rightness of his work that he refuses to accept the outcome of his trial. The judge was prejudiced against him from the start. It was rigged.
Some will find this film slow going or overly complex. But it is worth the effort. I’ll give this one three Tennysons and a Shakespeare.