Not all opinions are equal,” says historian Deborah Lipstadt in Denial. “The Earth is round, the ice caps are melting, and Elvis is not alive.” And six million Jews really were killed by the Nazi death machine in World War II, which is the pertinent point of this riveting docudrama. This is the true story of the 2000 libel trial in which Lipstadt, a professor at Atlanta’s Emory University who specializes in Holocaust history, was forced to defend herself against professional Holocaust denier David Irving, who didn’t like that she dared to cast him as the mendacious charlatan he is in her books about the Holocaust. Which makes Denial an absolutely essential film for our horrifying era of “alternative facts,” neo-Nazi ascendancy, and cultural gaslighting.
When I say that Denial is a movie to bolster the resistance that had been bubbling for months and erupted into full fury on January 21st, I don’t mean that the movie suggests that deliberate liars and intent obfuscators motivated by personal or political gain can be reasoned with. They cannot (or, at least, Denial offers no suggestion that this is possible). What’s important and heartening about Denial is its insistence on defending the truth no matter how high the cost and letting the liars reveal and condemn themselves with their own words and their own arrogance whenever possible.
All of this is particularly important when it come to matters academic and scientific, arenas in which bullies and bullshit artists will take advantage of the basic nature of fields of inquiry built on give-and-take and a reliance on results that are falsifiable, meaning that questioning them is inherent in their robustness. We see this in the opening scene of the film, in which Irving (Timothy Spall: Alice Through the Looking Glass, Mr. Turner) ambushes Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz: Youth, Oz the Great and Powerful) at her own lecture, in 1994, daring her to prove wrong his contentions, such as that Hitler had nothing to do with ordering the genocide of Jews. Her unwillingness to debate him at that moment — to give credence to his “perspective” — speaks to the dilemma we face when confronted with total nonsense masquerading as fact: to debate it is to suggest that there might be some truth in it, but to refuse to debate it just feeds the lies and the persecution complexes and delusions of the liars (“I’m being shut down”; “They’re all afraid to debate me”).
But Lipstadt’s hand is forced when, two years later in 1996, Irving sues her and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel. Irving, a Brit, files his suit in London, because the UK’s libel laws are much stricter than those in the US (Lipstadt is American). In the UK, he doesn’t have to prove that she injured him with what he deems libel, as he would have had to do in a US-based lawsuit. Instead, she has to prove that she told the truth about him; she has to prove that he is the “falsifier of history” she says he is… which means that she has to make a definitive case not only that Irving knew he was lying when he claimed that the Holocaust did not happen, but also, it seems, that the Holocaust itself actually happened. To settle would be equivalent to admitting that Irving is in the right. And that would be unconscionable.
Based on History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, Lipstadt’s subsequent book about the trial, Denial is a terrific legal procedural. The storytelling by director Mick Jackson (Volcano, Threads) is cool and measured — this is not an emotional drama, but a phlegmatic one about intellectual rigor and being true to one’s conscience. Which isn’t to say that passions don’t run high sometimes: Weisz’s Lipstadt is an academic bulldog with strong opinions who won’t be pushed around, which is perhaps why she recognizes a similar spirit in the London solicitor she hires to defend her, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott [Swallows and Amazons, Victor Frankenstein], who is particularly good here), who was already famous for having handled Princess Diana’s divorce. And she struggles with not letting perfectly understandable emotion get the better of her; she clashes with another London lawyer, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson: Unfinished Business, Selma), on a trip to Auschwitz as part of building their legal case when she thinks he’s too unmoved while visiting there.
It takes years for the lawsuit to finally get to court; the second half of the film is given over to the month-long trial in 2000. I love the unspoken feminist undercurrent of the film, which comes to the fore during the trial: a woman is the respected expert being challenged by a man with a very high opinion of himself that is shared by no one, a man who cannot abide her calling him out and who thought it would make him look good to tackle her. It doesn’t work: he remains a racist buffoon. (Spall is very good as a very ugly man.) But much more important, and relevant, than that is Lipstadt’s tenacity in refusing to let a dishonest man of bad faith sow seeds of doubt, to let him “mak[e] it respectable that there’s two points of view” when there simply isn’t, not in this case. Denial may be set almost 20 years ago, but it is so much a movie for right now. Lipstadt is a hero for our time, and this is exactly the right tribute to her persistence and dedication to the factual truth.