You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Deborah Lipstadt vs. David Irving

Elliot Gertel
October 14, 2016


by Elliot B. Gertel

Discussed in this essay: Denial, a film directed by Mick Jackson, written by David Hare.

DENIAL is an engaging, beautifully acted and finely-structured film, based on the well-publicized story of an Emory University historian, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a Holocaust studies specialist, and British writer, David Irving (Timothy Spall), who sued Lipstadt for libel when she attributed his Holocaust denial to a lifelong infatuation with Hitler and to his own anti-Semitic tendencies. In order to defend herself against Irving’s suit and prove her claims, Lipstadt had to go to England and litigate according to the British legal system, with the counsel of a solicitor and of a barrister.

The legal staff quickly comes up with a ploy to get Irving to agree to trial by judge rather than by jury. They send him a long questionnaire in advance, planning to “box him in with the truth.”

Irving, however, is a skilled orator who can come up with clever, if outlandish statements, such as his claim that the label “denier” is a “verbal yellow star.” Yet it is obvious that in his book about Hitler, between the publication of the first edition in 1977 and the second in 1991, “all traces of the Holocaust,” notes Lipstadt, have “disappeared.”

Irving viciously declares that the Holocaust is the “only interesting thing that’s happened to the Jews in 3,000 years. That’s why Jews talk about it.” In some personal conversations involving a legal team member, the film notes that it is all too easy for people to say that the Holocaust is discussed too much.

LIPSTADT observes that “a court of law has to be a lousy way to judge history.” A young female member of the British legal team assures her that her attorneys will not let Irving put the Holocaust or its survivors on trial, but that Irving will be put on trial. When Deborah is approached by survivors who insist on telling their stories, her solicitor (researcher and strategist), Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), is adamant that to allow the survivors to testify would be to legitimize Irving’s right to cross-examine. Irving had already snuck into one of Lipstadt’s U.S. lectures in the States and demanded that she debate him, which she steadfastly refused to do this because it would send the message that the Holocaust is debatable.

Her team prepares to comb Irving’s vast diaries for anti-Semitic talks and connections. When she first meets her dedicated barrister (litigator), Richard Rampton (Tim Wilkinson), he confesses that his German is limited to the libretto of The Magic Flute. Deborah is moved when she learns, after questioning some of his methods, that he has mastered German well enough during the several months of the trial to catch Irving taking liberties with a significant Nazi memo. Rampton wonders what he would have done had he lived under the Nazis, whether he would have obeyed orders out of fear.

Both her barrister and her solicitor are clear and consistent on the strategy to “keep the focus on Irving and on Irving alone.” An historian and lecturer, Lipstadt naturally wants to teach and to testify, but her barrister warns: “Our task is to starve Irving. Putting you on the witness stand would feed him.” She is told in no uncertain terms that being considered a coward is the price that she must pay for winning her case.

In the British setting, everything about Lipstadt’s American background is scrutinized, including her Queens, New York, accent. The extent to which she can assimilate to British courthouse protocols is examined. At first she refuses to bow to the judge. “I’m American. Everything else but not bowing,” she says in Mordecai-like tones. Will that attitude change or not?

WRITER David Hare and director Mick Jackson have fashioned a script and provided camera perspectives with an architectonic vision. They have a lovely eye for the architecture of Lipstadt’s home and university, and of the British sites and sights, including the cathedral-like courthouse and a hall with brilliant stained-glass windows. Iconic structures in Krakow, Poland are featured. Even the evil architecture of the Auschwitz death camp, especially the ruins of the crematoria, assumes a key function in the trying of the case.

Much of the film deals with issues of attitude and posture, the interior decorum, as it were, of the majestic courthouse. Deborah’s barrister instructs: “Stay seated. Button your lip.” He enjoins her to meet the denier with “self-denial.” But the film’s tutorials about the British legal system never become preachy or formula. They are presented engagingly and probingly as realizations on Lipstadt’s part -- and ours -- that self-restraint is the key to success in life, that even the most articulate and activist individuals must learn when it is one’s task to articulate or to act and when it is not. An important life lesson is presented in this film effectively and organically. The film imparts, as it were, an architecture of protest or response to injustice.

At one point, at Auschwitz, Lipstadt regards her barrister as dallying and even as heartless. Yet soon enough she comes to appreciate his devotion, and becomes perfectly willing to, as she puts it, “hand over” her conscience to “a fly-fishing, wine-drinking Scotsman.” She also learns to trust her solicitor, Anthony Julius, who is Jewish and brutally honest regarding the survivors’ demand to testify: “It is not my job to give emotional satisfaction to a whole group of people who can’t forget what happened to them.” Yet he joins Deborah without hesitation and with obvious emotion when she recites a memorial prayer in Hebrew at Auschwitz. The film is damning, by the way, in its depiction of British Jewish community leaders who want Lipstadt to settle the case.

Denial depicts well the need for people to learn to work together and to separate emotional baggage from constructive methodology in any effort to battle bigotry and to counter the wholesale disregard of violence and cruelty.

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.