In 2000, one of the most high-profile libel cases in recent British history came to an end. David Irving, a writer and self-proclaimed historian, had sued the American academic Deborah Lipstadt for describing him as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial” in a 1996 book published by Penguin, which he claimed had ruined his reputation and adversely affected his career. The case seemed odd to many observers, not least because to make his case Irving only had to claim that Lipstadt’s statements were defamatory, not that they were false. “Under British law,” The Guardian wrote, “Prof Lipstadt and her co-defendant were not able to rely solely on truth as a defence.”
Denial, a new movie dramatizing the case, comes at an opportune time. A variety of recent factors including the polarization of the American public’s media habits, the rise of the internet, and the political ascendancy of one of the greatest fibbers of the 21st century have had the effect of making truth seem somehow more subjective, somehow squishier, than ever before. Meanwhile, as the Overton window stretches to breaking point, previously unthinkable ideas and policies have entered the political mainstream. Anti-semitism has reappeared both on the right and on the left. So how, Denial seems to ask, do you litigate anything when truth isn’t enough? How do you fight people intent on spreading misinformation who either won’t accept or don’t care that they’re wrong?
At first glance, the movie, written by the playwright and screenwriter David Hare (Plenty, The Hours) and based on Lipstadt’s book about the trial, seems to be a heroic narrative of one woman’s legal efforts to preserve her integrity and fight for the Holocaust victims and survivors whose experiences are being negated. But the reality of it is much more complex. Lipstadt, played by Rachel Weisz, is a fierce defender of the truth who’s eager to spar with David Irving (Timothy Spall) when he confronts her first in a lecture theater and then with his lawsuit. However, it soon becomes clear that engaging with him isn’t a winning strategy, simply because it’s what he wants: By putting Lipstadt on the stand to be questioned by Irving, or calling any one of the survivors eager to testify, her legal team will legitimize Irving’s claims.
It’s a fascinating moment of clarity in a film that often feels hurried—you tend to wish BBC Films, which co-produced Denial, had made it into a three-part miniseries instead, which would have allowed more space to examine the exhaustive effort that went into discrediting Irving, not to mention Irving himself. Spall, one of the finest character actors currently working, plays the disgraced historian as the worst kind of upper-class monster: He leers at his Caribbean nanny’s breasts, sneers down his nose at Lipstadt, and produces supposed historical facts with a pomposity that perhaps serves him well on the white-genocide lecture circuit, but less so in a court of law. Denial never quite unpicks why Irving is so intent on rewriting history, or how such a dogged and once-respected researcher could be so willfully blind to the evidence all around him.
At the movie’s start, Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University, has just published her 1996 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Giving a talk to promote her book, she’s ambushed in a well-planned protest by Irving and two associates, who film him interrupting her, and offering $1,000 for anyone who can prove Hitler knew about or planned the Holocaust. Lipstadt refuses to talk to him, stating to the room full of students that she won’t debate Holocaust deniers. You can have opinions about the Holocaust, she says, but not about whether it happened or not: “That isn’t an opinion. That’s a fact.”
The question of why Irving would decide to sue Lipstadt and her publisher is one of the most intriguing unanswered questions of the film. Libel cases in Britain tend to benefit claimants, because any defamatory statements are assumed to be false unless the defendant can prove otherwise. But for Irving, the ploy is a risky one, simply because he’s opening up his work to such meticulous analysis. Lipstadt’s team, led by Anthony Julius (the terrific Andrew Scott), seems to sense that his overwhelming desire is for attention, not to mention the opportunity to put the validity of the Holocaust on trial. Thus, to Lipstadt’s deep frustration, they refuse to do so, focusing simply on the defamation charges. “You can stand up, look the devil in the eye ... that is very satisfying. And risk losing,” her barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) tells her. “Or stay seated, button your lip. Win. A real act of self-denial.”
It’s at moments like these that Hare’s script is at its most theatrical. The lesson Denial teaches subverts so many heroic narratives about squeaky wheels: Only by quieting down and playing the establishment game can Lipstadt win. The movie, directed by Mick Jackson (whose career includes projects as diverse as Temple Grandin and The Bodyguard), is mostly similarly restrained, although it indulges in cliched shots of Deborah out jogging, gazing mawkishly at a statue of the Celtic warrior princess Boudicea, pushing through the pain. Its finest and most moving moments are when Lipstadt and Rampton go to Auschwitz on a research mission, where the camera lingers on the piles of rubble that cover a destroyed gas chamber. A single animated flashback during the trial offers a jarring, visceral reminder of the atrocity Irving is trying to undermine.
If Denial has a message for political spectators in 2016, it’s that the best way to deal with liars, hucksters, con men, and bigots is to refuse to acknowledge them—to cast them off into a corner and let them conspiracy-theorize their way into hysteria. It’s both a pipe dream (never has it been easier to broadcast your own particular brand of craziness to an infinite audience) and perhaps the best hope for moving toward a slightly more rational and civil public square. To look the devils in the eye, to legitimize the damage that men like Irving have long sought to impose on the world, is to imbue them with credence and gravity they have done nothing to deserve.