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Film Review: Denial

Posted by Elizabeth Harper, Monday 6th March, 2017

review volunteer blog

Film poster for Denial (2017). Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt.

It is our duty to remember. In the words of Elie Wiesel: “To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice.” This is why I wanted to volunteer for The Wiener Library alongside my undergraduate degree in History at the University of East Anglia. Films concerning the topic of the Holocaust generally receive a lot of attention. They feed into the ever increasing fascination of the Third Reich. Unfortunately, not all of the films are of the ‘blockbuster’ status. A majority of films will go relatively unnoticed within popular culture, however their importance in increasing our knowledge is still significant.

This is my second blog for The Wiener Library following my earlier piece which investigated the camp at Treblinka and why it is less well-known than other camps in popular discourse about the Holocaust.

Lipstadt the Historian vs. Irving the Denier

Even before viewing Denial, I feared it would be a film that would go unnoticed by many. It seemed to me as though its niche focus would mean its mainstream impact would be minimal, something perhaps proved by the fact that I found it a challenge to find a cinema showing it. Nonetheless it is undeniably useful in understanding the battle between historians and Holocaust deniers and the relevance of such a fight to our contemporary world. Historian and defendant Deborah Lipstadt and prominent denier David Irving are effectively portrayed by Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall respectively, in this drama scripted by David Hare. Hare also scripted the Academy Award nominated film The Reader in 2008 and it is interesting to note the similarities between the two pieces. Both centre around sensitive legal trials arising out of the Holocaust and utilise language as a main weapon in the pursuit of truth and justice. This is evident in the opening scenes of verbal confrontation where it opens with Irving in the midst of one of his typically offensive speeches stating that “more women died on the back seat of Senator Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than in that gas chamber at Auschwitz." This is quickly juxtaposed by Lipstadt giving a lecture about Holocaust denial. Although rather obvious in its intentions, the audience is immediately able to recognise with whom better morals lay.

Irving’s Thoughts

In the film we are thankfully witness to only a few of Irving’s insufferable claims. Even so they still make the audience wince with disbelief that someone who was at one time viewed as a relatively credible historian could possess and actively disseminate such views. After writing Hitler’s War in 1977, for example, British historian A.J.P. Taylor labelled Irving’s work as “good scholarship,” whilst fellow historian Hugh Trevor-Roper stated “no praise can be too high for his indefatigable scholarly industry” (both Lipstadt, 22). Whilst it is notable that many historians doubted Irving’s use of reliable evidence at the time, the journey from relatively respected to thoroughly discredited historian is an interesting one.

Irving claims that this court case is parallel to a “verbal yellow star” against him, despite the fact that he was the person who filed the libel case. In Irving’s argument for Holocaust denial, his ‘evidence’ centres predominantly on the concentration camp complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau. More specifically, Irving denies the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. His headline phrase “no holes, no Holocaust” refers to his belief that there were no holes in the roofs of the supposed gas chambers, and therefore no way in which poisonous Zyklon B could be pumped into the chamber. He comes to a number of conclusions as to the purpose of these buildings, perhaps one of the most superfluous being that it was an air raid shelter. Needless to say, this is untrue and the presence of gas chambers at Auschwitz is backed up by both historical research and testimony. Hans Stark, SS-Untersturmführer in Auschwitz, testified that “the room had a flat roof, which allowed daylight in through the openings. It was through these openings that Zyklon B in granular form would be poured” (Lipstadt, 142). Fortunately, Richard Rampton (portrayed by Tom Wilkinson), one of England’s leading barristers, is quick to discredit any of Irving’s claims with his quick wit and intelligible defence.

Support for Lipstadt

Thankfully Denial does not give much airtime to Irving’s distasteful views and instead chooses to focus on Lipstadt’s inner strength and determination – as well as the excellence of the legal team around her. Deborah, Devora in Hebrew, was named after the prophetess who was the defender of her people. It struck me that Lipstadt most certainly does not back down in defending ‘her people’ against Irving’s denial of their suffering. What the film does neglect, however, is to show the amount of support Lipstadt had gathered both in the run up to and throughout the trial. She received considerable funds from the American Jewish community for instance, who decided that Lipstadt should not have to fight alone. Tensions are however shown within the British Jewish community, who although support Lipstadt, do also warn her to be wary of the attention Irving would receive. To both the academic and Jewish communities, this case was not one in which the defendants were trying to prove that the Holocaust happened (that of course, is indisputable) but to prove that Irving had intentionally falsified his ‘facts’. Steven Spielberg, the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, were but a few individuals and organisations to contribute to the case and it would have been effective to portray this wider circle of support surrounding Lipstadt in order to highlight just how important this case was.

For more extensive detail about the trial and the historiography surrounding it, I would strongly recommend reading Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier as well as Richard Evans’ Telling Lies about Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial. Evans is not only a notable historian and former Regis Professor of History at Cambridge but was also the lead witness to the case tasked with conducting a historiographic analysis on Irving’s writings. The film touches satisfyingly on the most important aspects of the case and evokes sorrow alongside anger amongst the audience. At the viewing I attended at the Picturehouse in Norwich, a few members of audience who sat alongside me joined in the Hebrew prayer El malei rachamim as the actors portraying Lipstadt and Robert Jan Van Pelt (architectural historian and leading expert on Auschwitz) recited the prayer whilst stood among the remains of the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Who To Put On The Witness Stand

Throughout the film and book, Lipstadt battles with her legal team’s rejection to give voice to the survivors. The legal team argue that it is not worth the risk of survivors being humiliated by Irving, and that they do not wish to give him the pleasure of doing so. Nonetheless the verdict of the trial and the extensive hearing of historical evidence to dispute Irving’s claims leads Lipstadt to conclude in the press conference that “you [the survivors] were remembered. The voice of suffering was heard.” Poignantly, the audience is left with silent film shots of Auschwitz before the credits roll.

The audience with whom I viewed the film were mostly middle-aged, if not older and all seemed to have a preemptive interest in the film, which underscores my earlier point about the film having a somewhat minimal commercial interest. I should say however, that I was accompanied by my partner who has no particular interest or background in the Holocaust, yet he found the film to be engaging and wanted to learn more after the film had ended. This reminds us that no matter how comprehensive one’s knowledge of the Holocaust is, we know it happened, we know of the suffering and what is more we remember. In the words of Deborah Lipstadt, “It is our job to continue the never-ending quest for truth, justice and freedom of speech.”

Final Thoughts

Considering the length and laborious nature of the trial, the film does well in portraying the dispute between Lipstadt and Irving whilst also combating the wider topic of Holocaust denial. The film has not been universally praised however with some critics calling the film “ludicrously hammy” and others objecting to the relatively sedate dramatic scenes. Nigel M. Smith of the Guardian awarded the film only two stars claiming it “should have been a rousing and ragingly topical crowdpleaser” (Smith, 2016). However to make the film more dramatic (akin to say, Schindler’s List or The Pianist), would be doing the accuracy of the film a disservice. It is not ‘action-packed’, but for good reason. It is a sensitive topic, which the film deals with very well, especially the aforementioned film shots at Auschwitz. It is a gripping piece which I praise for dealing with Holocaust denial in a non-sensationalist manner and with the challenges faced by historians such as Lipstadt. Not many films emphasise the importance of historians and their work like this film. Today Irving contests that he remains popular, even claiming that the film gave credence to his following but this is difficult to imagine. It struck me that the trial has a renewed relevance in the current political climate and it is reassuring to know that true historians fight to tell the truth and encourage debate. In a world of ‘alternative facts’, we cannot let ‘alternative history’ become of value.

Cited Works:

Lipstadt, Deborah E. History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

Smith, Nigel M. Denial review – Rachel Weisz makes heavy weather of Holocaust courtroom drama. The Guardian. 12 September 2016.

Suggested Further Reading:

The Wiener Library holds many resources on the Irving vs Lipstadt Libel Trial and Holocaust denial more generally, some of which is listed below:

In 2015 the Library held a series of talks with Deborah Lipstadt and Anthony Julius, where they discussed the trial and the growing antisemitism in contemporary Europe. These talks are available to listen to online via Backdoor Broadcasting.

For more related sources try searching any of the following in our Collections Catalogue; Irving, David; Lipstadt, Deborah; Legal Cases; Holocaust Denial; Revisionism; Revisionist Histories.

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