The neglected story of how black women were instrumental in winning the space race is told in Hidden Figures. True stories converted to film can be crass (should Patriots Day really be released this soon?), or they can dramatise a tale ought to be told that many know nothing about. The court case in Denial, David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, was decided on 11 April 2000. I was 8. David Irving’s name has disappeared from the mainstream where before he was a prominent denier of the Holocaust. It is a good in our society that many now do not know his name, but the sociopolitical landscape of 2017 tells us it is important to remember why he was consigned to history.
Denial is a drama film centred around the aforementioned court case. Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt, an academic who published a book called Denying the Holocaust, in which she makes certain comments about Irving. He sues her for libel. While she is encouraged to settle out of court, which is how many of these cases end up, she feels a responsibility to fight for those who suffered and died during the genocide.
Not only that, as an academic she fights for the truth. Lipstadt says she will not debate with Holocaust deniers. Her lawyers, Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott both on fine form, do not wish to involve survivors of the Holocaust at all despite pleads from the Jewish community to have their voices heard in the trial. Denial is not about whether what took place at Auschwitz and other extermination camps happened or not – it is about David Irving and what he is saying.
Irving is played by Timothy Spall, who has said he is having a hard time promoting the movie. He is not portrayed as a monstrous figure of evil, but rather a historian with an amazing ability to play with words and information. His charisma is chilling – in private he is charming, but in front of the cameras he is lively and confident, not unlike a Trump or Farage figure always ready with a soundbite. It is debated whether or not he knows what he is saying is offensive, but Spall plays him as someone who is an egocentric performer – it matters very little at times whether he believes in what he says if he can use the court (and the court of public opinion) to his favour.
Lipstadt notes that should they lose the case then it legitimises the right for people to deny the Holocaust. Irving argues that the attack on him by Lipstadt is against freedom of speech. These are arguments the modern world is having right now, and the film offers up some methods of tackling them. When Irving appears on TV, two characters agree to turn the telly off, which one has to imagine would work wonders against someone like Katie Hopkins or Piers Morgan. There is the central court case which Irving himself initiated, as much a sign of bravado as it is a belief in what he writes. There is a conflict between head and heart when choosing to respond to someone with beliefs that are poisonous to society, and how they would react to each.
Underneath the main plot there are other struggles Lipstadt comes up against. She wants to be the central figure opposing Irving, but her legal team continuously shut her out. She openly acknowledges that Irving has a distaste for her because she is both a woman and a Jew. Her frustration is borne not only from injustice but also an enforced inability – either she should back down or she should stay quiet, despite her words acting as the instigator for the whole thing. This is more complex than just a strand of sexism in the legal system (that aspect is very much present and important), but also how best to approach a situation. Lipstadt is impassioned while her team are clinical. Irving’s propaganda is shown to feed on causing a scene, demonstrated early on.
During troubled times the last thing you want is to be reminded of hate in a place where we can forget about that for 90 minutes or so. The success of La La Land is as much about how it allows us to forget about Trump, the alt-right, Brexit, refugee crises, and the crumbling of political forces that oppose them, as it is about the catchy tunes.
Denial is a great film removed from the current climate, but it is best engaged with knowing this is a fight that has happened repeatedly, has been won repeatedly, and will not be won again by saying and doing nothing. If it falters in any place it is in showing that Irving’s anti-Semitic and racist public speeches were mostly delivered to skinheads, and those defending him outside of the court were unshaven and working class. Irving himself is smartly dressed, eloquent, and book-smart, as are his ideological iterations dominating the news today. This difference in image between the well-dressed supporters of Lipstadt and the blue-collar support for Irving does nothing for representation of the working class and their politics, and continues a refusal to engage with people who look and speak ‘proper’ who hold and preach offensive views.
Denial is not about debating fact – it is about honouring fact, and discrediting those who would abuse it. The Holocaust is not on trial – liars are.