Denial, a film based on the true story of the legal battles between a Jewish scholar and a Holocaust denier, asks a timely question. What do you do when you are confronted with a lie told with bluster and confidence, again and again, in direct contradiction with established facts?
Many Americans have been asking these questions during the past year as Donald Trump has taken political dishonesty to new and disturbing heights. But few people have thought about these questions as much as Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University and the real life heroine of Denial, played in the movie by Rachel Weisz. The film, based on History on Trial, Lipstadt’s 2006 account of the contretemps, depicts the years-long legal battle she fought against David Irving (played by Timothy Spall), who sued her in the United Kingdom for libel after she called him a Holocaust denier in a 1993 book. In court, he sought to clear himself of the label “Holocaust denier,” and of charges of anti-Semitism—even though he had written florid apologia for Hitler, had associated with neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and had argued—in writing—that there had never been a massive and organized annihilation of European Jews.
“David Irving knew the truth,” Lipstadt told me recently. “He knew what the documents said, but he took the documents, in 25 to 30 different instances, and he changed, rewrote, omitted, reversed. He is one of those transitional figures, taking the fact and transitioning it into the lie.”
Early on in the movie, Lipstadt and her barrister, Richard Rampton, take a trip to Auschwitz, just before the trial begins. In the film, fog hushes the stark lines of the barracks, and Robert Jan Van Pelt (Mark Gatiss), a Dutch Holocaust scholar, stands with them in the muted chill, poring over the ruins of a gas chamber. The film concludes with an image of snow settling over the caved roof of the chamber, reminding viewers of the realities behind the legal battle, and the ongoing struggle to preserve and defend truth. In between, the movie, like the book it was based on, History on Trial, eschews many of the traditional beats of the courtroom drama: emotional tumult on the witness stand, the slow tide of a turning jury. Instead, the drama derives from the steady, relentless pursuit of truth in the dry environs of a British libel court. One by one, with satisfying precision, willful distortions of historical detail are systematically debunked by a bewigged barrister. It builds to a resolutely bookish kind of triumph, one in which, as Lipstadt puts it in the film, “the voice of suffering is heard.”
Though early reviews have been less than enthused about the film’s “heavy weather” mood, it feels bracing in the current political moment, when racism, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy theories have stormed in from the fringes to the front page. In an essay for The Guardian, the film’s screenwriter, David Hare, writes, “Some opinions are backed by fact. Others are not. And those which are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those which are.” It sounds banal, but has become anything but. “An opinion has got to be based in some truth,” Lipstadt says. “If I say to you, ‘It’s my opinion that abortion should be outlawed because all women go crazy after they had an abortion,’ that’s not an opinion, that’s a statement based in a lie... Irving’s views were rooted in a complete and total lie.”
At trial, Lipstadt’s defense team decided that neither she nor any Holocaust survivors should testify. Instead, Irving, who represented himself, faced a relentless stream of experts who detailed his repeated, careful attempts to exculpate the Third Reich. One expert noted that Irving had deliberately transposed a singular German word into the plural when translating Himmler’s phone log—thereby attempting to prove that Hitler had attempted to stop the liquidation of German Jews. (In fact, Hitler intended to halt a single Judentransport.) Tapes were shown of Irving soliciting “Seig Heil!” from adoring crowds. The judge fully absolved Lipstadt of libel, and, in his ruling, chronicled Irving’s abuses of the historical record, as well as his anti-Semitism and racism. All of this is portrayed in Denial, but the film does not mention another of Irving’s trials: in 2006, he was sentenced to three years in prison in Austria for Holocaust denial.
Sixteen years after the events of Denial, Lipstadt says the internet has made both facts and lies more accessible than ever. She believes there’s an even greater laxity about the truth today than there was then—a devolution that she has watched with dread. While the democratization of information enabled by the internet has largely been a positive force, she explains, there has been attendant democratization of fact and its interpretation.
“When I saw conspiracy theories in Holocaust denial, it was disturbing to me, but I never dreamt where we would live in a world today where people promulgate conspiracy theories with pride and derring-do,” Lipstadt said. “If you challenge them for facts—you’re seen as elitist, not open minded or whatever it might be. … And yet what disturbs me less than the people who create the theory, are the people who are willing to accept it: ‘I read it on the Internet, it’s fact.’ It’s more than disturbing. It’s really very frightening.”
When she spoke about the current political climate, Lipstadt’s tone acquired some of the same urgency that Rachel Weisz channels in her earnest emulation of the professor on trial: broad Queens vowels uttered with clipped determination. “What I’ve seen is that there are people who are attracted to Donald Trump—I’m choosing these words very carefully—and find a comfortable spot in his camp, who are conspiracy theorists, who are anti-semites, who disregard facts,” Lipstadt said. “There is room for real debate about the Holocaust with contemporary relevance, but you can’t debate whether something happened or not, [like] ‘the Mossad blew up the World Trade Center,’ or ‘Sandy Hook was all made up,’ or ‘vaccines cause autism.’ You can’t say, ‘I was for something’ when you weren’t for something, and the record shows you weren’t for it.”
While Lipstadt had some sharp words for the press—“the media is not a neutral passthrough for misinformation”—she added that “the person on the street” also has a role to play. “When someone says something you know is not based on fact, you’ve got to challenge them,” she said, adding, “There is no neutral bystander when it comes to truth and lies.”
Of her own efforts in that quarter, Lipstadt wryly referenced the “klieg lights and red carpets” that have accompanied the film, but declines further self-lionization. “I know lots of people who would love to be troublemakers in the name of justice,” she told me. “I got the chance, and I hope I acquitted myself well.”
Talia Lavin is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker. She writes about books, movies, and her feels.