Denial, starring Rachel Weisz, is – narrowly – about the 1996 libel trial brought by David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt. More broadly, it’s about Holocaust denial, and its role in perpetuating the scars of the very crimes it seeks to obscure or excuse. It’s only a recent release, so it must have been pitched a couple of years ago at the very least. Which makes it one of those rare pieces of art that’s all the more topical and current when released than when it was conceived.
David Irving was a historian of, and fan of, Hitler – back in the day, he wrote extensively in defence of Hitler, and denial of the Holocaust. Deborah Lipstadt was a historian of the Holocaust – she wrote extensively about denial, and in one of her books called Irving out for lying in grandiosely extensive terms – in response to which Irving brought a libel suit against her for defamation. The film follows the course of the trial, and while my memory doesn’t let me swear that it gets the events exactly right, it’s pretty close. (In particular, if anyone looks at Timothy Spall’s portayal of Irving and thinks he couldn’t have come across as so cartoonishly evil in real life, no, he could and did).
But for me, more than anything, two factors stood out. First, the sheer blatancy of the lies. Irving mistranslated documents, and lied about what was displayed on photographs right in front of everyone.
Second, the subject of free speech, and in particular, the number of times Lipstadt had to remind someone that this was a case Irving brought against her, not her against him. Irving and his defenders covering the trial claimed his free speech was under attack – yet another blatant lie, as in truth he was the one trying to silence Lipstadt. Free speech to him meant the white man getting to speak without the Jewish woman getting to answer – the white man getting to lie without the Jewish woman getting to say “you lied” – and too many found it perfectly easy to follow that script.
Ok, you knew right from the title I was going to bring up Trump in this post, didn’t you?
Denial shows us an example of the kind of script we’re faced with right now. A script where the president-elect straight facedly claims to have won the largest electoral college vote ever, when the numbers are plain for anyone to see. A script where a press spokesman claims the inauguaration crowds were the largest ever, when the photographs are right there. A script where the media are liars and traitors to be silenced, when they’re reporting things we can easily confirm from the footage. A script where truth is the province of authority rather than the province of facts.
A script where the White House gets through Holocaust Memorial Day without mentioning the Jews, and responds to this being pointed out with a screed straight from #AllLivesMatter. (And garners praise from far-right commentators for “de-Jewing” the Holocaust).
When the makers of Denial must have pitched the film, none of this had happened. Little of it could have seemed to be on the cards. But it all did, and all of it right around the time the film hit the screens. A warning about the dangers of Holocaust denial is timely, certainly at a time when the last eyewitnesses to it are nearing the ends of their lives. But in light of current events, its warning rings all the louder.