Movie Review: Denial

A few months back, a friend here in Hong Kong sent me a photo she took of a delivery van she spotted out on the street. On the side of the van was a fair-sized decal of a Nazi flag superimposed on flames. (Yes, I do know the difference between a Nazi emblem and a Buddhist symbol.) Fortunately, her photo included both the telephone number of the delivery company and the van’s license plate so I was able to call up the company’s office and explain to the very nice woman at the other end of the phone that people like me find the Nazi flag to be offensive. Although she didn’t understand the scope of the problem, she knew enough to realise that it was a problem and she called the driver right away and asked him to remove the decal. The next day, the same friend spotted the same van out on the street. The Nazi flag had been replaced by a Hong Kong flag. Now, some people might argue that this new image is equally offensive, but for me, my matter was resolved.

In Hong Kong, we don’t have Holocaust denial… at least not as far as I know. We have Holocaust ignorance. Although one can argue that ignorance doesn’t come from a place of evil, it can be just as insidious because, if left alone, denial can take root. That’s why people like me go after ignorant drivers who sport Nazi flags on the sides of their vans. (Others, like my good friend, Dr. Glenn Timmermans, teach Holocaust Studies to university students. Glenn also leads a delegation of educators from Hong Kong, Macau and China to Yad Vashem in Israel each year to learn about the Holocaust from a pedagogical perspective.)

My efforts, however, are nothing compared to those of Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt. She goes after Holocaust deniers. In her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, she named British “historian” David Irving as a Holocaust denier (and more). Irving is noted for saying “More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz,” among many other disgusting statements. After Lipstadt’s book was published in the US, Irving would often attend her speaking engagements, trying to engage her in public debate. Lipstadt, however, would have nothing of it or of him. To her, like the Earth being round, the Holocaust is not up for debate.

That situation, however, changed in 1994 when Penguin Books published her book in the UK. Irving decided to sue both Lipstadt and the publisher for libel. Unlike in the US, UK libel laws are such that the burden of proof falls on the defence, meaning that Lipstadt and Penguin had to prove in court that her claims of Irving’s statements were deliberate lies designed to conform to his ideological views. The ensuing court case is the subject of the film, DENIAL, starring Rachel Weisz (THE LOBSTER) as Lipstadt and Timothy Spall (MR. TURNER) as Irving.

In DENIAL just as in real life, Lipstadt retains the services of British solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, TV’s SHERLOCK; SPECTRE), who had previously made a name for himself representing Princess Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles. The film shows how the UK’s legal system differs from that in the US, particularly where solicitors prepare cases and barristers argue those cases in front of a judge or jury. In this instance, that barrister is Richard Rampton, QC (Tom Wilkinson, SELMA), who seems to be rather dispassionate about the gravity of the subject matter much to Lipstadt’s concern and frustration. Throughout the trial, she struggles not only with the British way of doing things, but also with her inability to be a vocal part of the process. Her counsellors also nix her desire to put some Holocaust survivors on the stand. They very correctly tell her that survivors’ memories are fallible and Irving will easily discredit them. Instead, they say, their strategy will be to prove that Irving knew the truth about the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz (in particular) and that he willfully warped the facts to suit his thesis.

As far as courtroom dramas go, this is neither TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or A FEW GOOD MEN with their impassioned speeches nor is it the O.J. Simpson trial with bloody gloves that don’t seem to fit the hands of the accused. If you’re expecting a film with lots of theatrics and excitement, DENIAL will disappoint. However, it is worth noting that much, if not all, of the court proceedings are taken verbatim from the actual trial. DENIAL is a thinking person’s film. Weisz does an excellent job here portraying the academic. I had the honour of having lunch with the real Deborah Lipstadt not long after she published her 2005 book about the trial (entitled History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier). Weisz not only nails Lipstadt’s Queens, NY accent but the woman’s cadence as well. Spall, Wilkinson and Scott are all wonderful too, taking what could be a dry story and infusing it with character.

DENIAL has been out for a while overseas and has already played on some airlines. If you haven’t seen it yet, definitely check it out now in the cinema. It’s a good lesson on why the uneducated — whoever and wherever they are — need to be educated and why liars need to be called out as such. (Yes, I mean them.) Oh, and check out the book too. It’s excellent.

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