The Conspiracy

“Denial” Describes a Case of Fact vs. Fiction

The movie “Denial” is about a court case between Fact and Fiction. Through the case David Irving v. Penguin Books Limited, Deborah E. Lipstadt, “Denial” shows how injustices like the Holocaust cannot be denied. One of the most controversial cases of the 1990s, this case distinguished scholarship from bigotry. Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) represents the former, while Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) represents the latter. The film has an approval rating of 79 percent on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes.

I attended an exclusive screening of the film in Washington, D.C., featuring a discussion afterward with Lipstadt, sponsored by the Shusterman Foundation.

Deborah Lipstadt at the “Denial” premier at Landmark Theater in Bethesda| By Edward Kimmel [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons

In 1996, Irving sued Lipstadt for libel, claiming she distorted real documents and defamed his livelihood by labeling him a Holocaust denier, falsifier, and bigot in her book, Denying the Holocaust. Lipstadt had to prove she was not guilty of defaming Irving, who claimed to be a well-respected historian in Great Britain. Although Lipstadt’s name was included in Irving’s suit with her publishing company, Lipstadt’s lawyers restrained her from taking the stand against Irving, despite her desire to do so.

The movie, based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, begins with a video of Irving spewing his alt-right propaganda at an event, only to immediately transition to Lipstadt lecturing to Emory students about how Holocaust deniers function – distorting numbers like how many Jews were killed, among other tactics.

The film transitions to the professor doing her routine morning jog then opening her mailbox before entering her house, where she feeds her dog while listening to National Public Radio – unaware that she will soon be in the international spotlight. The next day she opens her mailbox to a letter from Penguin Limited, her publisher, informing her of Irving’s plans to sue for libel. Instead of following the conventional reaction of settling such a case, which many of her peers advised, she decides to take Irving to court.

With the best counsel, led by leading British libel lawyer Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), Lipstadt and her team strategize how they will be victorious. After examining a few options, the defense decides to disprove Irving’s work. By exposing the flaws in Irving’s scholarship, the defense believes Lipstadt’s work will be justified without having to use it in court.

Rampton, Lipstadt, and History Professor Robert Jan van Pelt (Mark Gatiss) collect evidence at Auschwitz. Treading through what was once hell on earth, they forensically examine the site of what was a gas chamber – destroyed by the Nazis before the Russian liberation of the camp in 1945 – to counter Irving’s claims that no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. However, Lipstadt cannot see this visit as solely an opportunity to collect forensic evidence and is therefore furious that Rampton isn’t showing any feelings whatsoever. Lipstadt comes to realize, however, that this visit to Auschwitz is not part of a trip like March of the Living but rather a mission to collect indisputable proof. Rampton tells Lipstadt that the objective is not to prove that the Holocaust happened so much as to outline how the Germans operated such a killing machine.

After the four-year legal battle, a 333-page verdict by Justice Charles Gray indicts not only Irving but also the Holocaust denier’s beliefs and so-called scholarship.

In the afterword of History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz writes, “Justice is often in the eye of the beholder, since it is a function of perception, attitudes, experience, education, and values.” Lipstadt’s case underscores Dershowitz’s sentiment. While it is one thing to criticize scholarship, it’s another to demonize or deny. To do so in relation to the Holocaust requires an ignorant perception and attitude that distorts justice.

Originally, Lipstadt did not want there to be a movie about the case. During the Q&A session, when I asked her what compelled her to embrace the film, Lipstadt said that, after screenplay writer David Hare showed her his summary of the potential script, she was no longer reluctant to see her story told on the big screen. Hare’s reputation as a renowned screenwriter put Lipstadt at ease.

Lipstadt also described her concern about a time when there will no longer be Holocaust survivors. “We worry the detail will go away,” she said. Perhaps movies like “Denial” will help keep survivors’ stories alive.

Overall, “There are facts, there are opinions, and there are lies,” Lipstadt said. She hopes the movie will shed light on the facts.

Jackson Richman is a senior studying political science at George Washington University. He has interned at The Weekly Standard and The Daily Caller. He’s a frequent contributor for Red Alert Politics and American Action News. You can follow him on Twitter: @jacksonrichman.

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