Holocaust deniers are a special reptilian species. Until the late 1980s, David Irving, a British historian focusing on World War II, was reasonably well respected among his peers, though even his best-known book, 1977’s Hitler’s War, controversially claimed that Hitler had no knowledge of the Holocaust. Later, Irving took that argument even further, denying the existence of the gas chambers and arguing—based on specious evidence—that the Holocaust never even happened. Ostensibly, that would be enough to qualify a person as a Holocaust denier. But in 1996 the notoriously belligerent Irving brought a libel suit against American historian Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, in a London court, claiming that her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust—which characterized him as the anti-Semite and Holocaust denier he so obviously was—could destroy his reputation and his livelihood.
It was an absurd charge, but Lipstadt couldn't ignore it. Because English libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant rather than the plaintiff, she had two choices: She could settle the suit out of court, which Irving would, of course, tout as a personal victory. Or she could take the much rougher road and bring the case to court. Lipstadt chose the latter and won. Denial, written by David Hare and directed by Mick Jackson, tells the story of that landmark trial: The picture is methodically constructed, to the point that it’s sometimes dull. But here and there it sets off a mini charge, building up to a subtly satisfying conclusion. Most significant of all, it's an adult drama that doesn’t talk down to its audience. And it's one that forces us to reckon with the reality that some individuals have no shame about distorting the facts with bluster and bullying. How far we let these manipulative aggressors go is up to us.
In an early scene in Denial we see Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) giving a talk in connection with her book. An older gentleman in the back challenges her derisively, and offers $1,000 in cash to anyone in the audience who can prove that Nazis gassed Jews at Auschwitz. The audience titters, perhaps half nervously, but their laughter only urges the heckler on. Meanwhile, the intruder—who is, of course, Irving himself, here played by Timothy Spall—continues to use his “credentials” to push Lipstadt around. “I have 30 years’ experience in the archives,” he drawls in his upper-crusty English accent. The “little lady” at the end of the sentence is implied.
Lipstadt stands her ground, but she’s rattled by the event—who wouldn’t be? And it turns out that Irving has taped the whole thing, posting an account of the event on his web site and taking demonic pleasure in the (false) claim that she “sputtered” and “screamed” in response to his questions. Then Irving kicks that lawsuit to her door; Lipstadt is advised to settle. Instead, she hires bulldog solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) to prepare the case, which barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) will present in court on her behalf. The bulk of the movie deals with the clash between Lipstadt’s forthright, unapologetically American style and the more buttoned-up approach of the Englishmen (and a few women) who hold her fate in their hands.
Hare’s screenplay at times belabors those differences: As Weisz plays her, Lipstadt is sometimes shockingly naïve—more so than the real Lipstadt was—about the intricacies of trying this sort of case in the British court system. Weisz is a terrific actress, but she can’t quite find her footing here: She talks like a girl from Queens—as Lipstadt is—but you never quite buy her swagger.
Still, following the hairpin twists of how this eight-week trial played out is quietly pleasurable. And watching Spall’s Irving purr and snigger as he makes his case—he represented himself instead of securing counsel—is both maddening and perversely enjoyable. When he tries to challenge an Auschwitz historian on a particular detail, his confidence in the bunk he’s trying to pass off as fact is jaw-dropping. Spall’s Irving scowls even when he’s smiling. His overconfident charm is the greasy, unctuous kind—to compare him to a snake is an insult to the snake. And although the trial did succeed in destroying Irving’s career and reputation, his story stands as a cautionary allegory for the juncture we’ve reached right now: Saying something is so doesn’t automatically make it true, and distorting facts so they suit your own vision is a coward’s game. But just catching a man in a lie isn’t enough. Holding him accountable for his lies takes guts and fortitude, especially when he’s proved adept at sliming right out of your grasp.