A new film aptly entitled "Denial"--about a famous Holocaust-denial court case--is a jewel. I hope it will be used in classrooms. I will be doing some SPOILERS in this review in order to pick apart the storyline, as well as the reality of dealing with Holocaust deniers.
Rachel Weisz plays professor, historian and author, Deborah E. Lipstadt, and carries the film with grace, warmth and humanity. Her character is a woman of pluck, intelligence, veracity and determination. Weisz, a Londoner, masters an endearing and flawless New York City accent.
This script could have been a tedious "talkie" with impassioned speeches and recountings of the horrors of the extermination camps, but although it refrained, "the suffering was heard." Good filmcraft.
DEBUNKING THE DEBUNKERS
Lipstadt is a professor who has dedicated herself to debunking those who try to debunk the Final Solution (the wholesale, systematic slaughter of Europe's Jews by Hitler and Nazi Germany during World War II). In one of her books, she cites Dr. David Irving (Timothy Spall), a vicious, megalomaniac historian who falsifies history in order to paint an alternate world where the Holocaust never happened. The karmic question (posed by Lipstadt to her students) at the beginning of the film is: "How do we know that the Holocaust happened? How do we know what really happened? Where is the proof? How strong is the proof?" Immediately, we see the consequences and importance of these queries: How do we know anything happened? How can we be sure of history? Who gets to be the keepers and framers of history?
GUILTY TILL PROVEN INNOCENT
Dr. Irving shows up (with his own videographer) at a talk given by Lipstadt. He begins heckling, challenging and pulling flamboyant stunts to discredit her. Dr. Irving is removed by security because Lipstadt's policy is to never debate those who deny history. She will debate those who have different opinions about why and how events took place, but not THAT they took place. She will not debate FACTS. But Irving (who is British) goes on the offensive and sues her (in the British court system) for libel. He alleges that she has tarnished his professional career and he is now treated like a pariah because of her accusations. And here's where it gets even more strangely intriguing. In the British system, if you are sued for libel, YOU must prove that you are innocent, not the other way around!
STRATEGY, STRATEGY, STRATEGY
Lipstadt hires a crack team of British lawyers, but still has difficulty wrapping her head around this "guilty till proven innocent" reversal. The one thing she wants to do is get on the stand herself and testify. She wants to put Holocaust survivors on the stand to tell their stories. Her legal team forbids both. She is to sit there, tight-lipped, and let them handle it. It's the only way she's going to win. It's a strategy. Jesus Himself told us: "Be as clever as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). "Denial" may remind you of the English lawyer, St. Thomas More, in "Man for All Seasons," as he uses his knowledge of the law to protect himself.
Lipstadt's legal eagles know the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of British law. At times these high-powered barristers (and solicitors) appear to her to be cold and uncaring, but nothing could be further from the truth. Shrewdly, they don't want the Holocaust to be put on trial, only Dr. Irving. They don't want the survivors to be humiliated. They want to "starve" Irving so he can't put on his usual circus.
Lipstadt feels the weight of her duty to history, the Jewish community and the survivors themselves. She can't blow this. She can't lose. But victory needs come through some decidedly un-American and un-Deborah tactics.
THE BANALITY OF EVIL
There are lighter moments in the film that don't feel like perfunctory "comic relief" to offset an egregious topic. They are natural flourishes proceeding from the personalities and the contrasts of the conflict at hand. The camerawork is standard and gets out of the way for the most part. The film includes a visit to Auschwitz by Lipstadt and her legal crew. I've seen quite a bit of footage of Auschwitz through the years, but this is like an organic documentary-within-a-feature-film, focused on a few aspects of that hellish place, cinematically "breaking the fourth wall." Well done.
If you're afraid this is an "intelligent" film, um, it's definitely smart, but it's also witty and chuckle-worthy. I challenge you to step up your game. Educate your mind. A fellow New Englander--who, with me, deplores the ever-increasing anti-intellectualism of the USA--always quotes to me (borrowing from the UNCF): "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."
I went into the film wondering about free speech issues. How can we legislate about those who choose to wackily deny reality without taking away the right to free speech (although free speech always has its limits)? And now with social media--how could we ever control trolls? Do we even want to? How exactly do you classify "hate speech" when virtually any opinion is categorized thus today? The answer in the film is rather simple: "Free speech? Yes. But you will be held accountable for your lies" and your willfull denial and manipulation of facts. And then, astoundingly in the film (something my philosophy professor at a boss, orthodox Catholic college drilled into us): "Not all opinions are equal."
WHO'S IN CHARGE OF HISTORY?
I did NOT remember this 2000 trial in the news, so I wasn't sure of the outcome of the film. For those of you who don't remember it either, I won't do a spoiler here. Let me conclude this review with these two thoughts: Who's in charge of history? We all are. When will the Jews "stop talking about the Holocaust" (although it hasn't even been 100 years and survivors are still alive)? Never, I hope. Remembering the Shoah benefits the dignity of all humankind.
-- General Eisenhower ordered the liberated concentration camps to be filmed and photographed because he knew that people would have a hard time believing the depths of depravity and cruelty the Allied Forces were witnessing firsthand, and the enormous number of lives lost. So why would anyone deny the Holocaust happened? Why would someone taunt Holocaust survivors as frauds (as Irving did)? Anti-Semitism, certainly. Nazi sympathies, certainly. Sensationalism and outrageously making a name for oneself by doing the forbidden and profiting off the grief and pain of others, certainly. But theologically speaking? I've always maintained--and I'm not alone--that hatred of Jews (just because they're Jews) is hatred of God. The Jews are God's first incarnation in the world. As my Scripture prof used to say: "God needs a body in the world. His Chosen People were His first indwelling in the world." Or, as I reply to Jewish people I meet who think it's pompous to go around calling themselves the Chosen People: "If you're not chosen, neither are we" (since Christianity is a continuum of salvation history). As Jesus told the Samaritan woman: "Salvation is from the Jews."
--I didn't think Rachel Weisz was much of an actress toward the beginning of her career. She has really grown and is now a fine one.
--There are different kinds of speech. Deborah E. Lipstadt was good at "teaching" speech, "lecturing" speech, "writing" speech. But she was not good at British legal speech. It's OK to specialize.
--When one of Lipstadt's lawyers refuses to shake hands with Irving at the end, I believe he did so because to Irving, this was all a game. And it's not.
--Why is the British system like this (with regard to libel)? Perhaps a leftover from the governing notions of the "divine right of kings"?
--Like many true bigots, Irving was not limited to anti-Semitism. He had other virulent prejudices.
--Seeing the wild- and evil-eyed Irving portrayed by Spall, just reminded me that right now, there is immense BS and evil being planned for the world. Some people dedicate their whole lives to BS and evil. Better we beware and be aware. And dedicate our lives to the true, good and beautiful in earnest.