Facts are facts, right?
We know that two plus two is four. The sun rises in the East. Sure, we may argue about politics and theology. We may quibble about the best movies or the tastiest foods. But we live this life knowing that certain things simply are, whether we wish them to be or not.
The Holocaust is a fact. That the Nazis systematically murdered Jews and others in its concentration camps is incontrovertible, professor Deborah Lipstadt says. Millions of people died. Millions more testified to its horrors. The death camps speak for themselves.
Oh, Deborah knows there are those who deny it, of course: She wrote a book about it. In Denying the Holocaust, Deborah pays special attention to David Irving, an amateur British historian and prominent denier. “More women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz,” he thunders at a speech. He’s wrong, Deborah says, wrong by a factor of millions. In the book she calls him a bigot, a falsifier and a dishonest historian. Those, she believes, are simply the facts.
But if David Irving’s personal history proves anything, it’s that he’s never let facts get in the way of a good show. In 1996, he files a lawsuit against Deborah and her publishers in English court—one accusing her of libel. Prove that I’m a bigot, Irving dares. Prove that my version of the truth is wrong.
If Deborah goes to court, she’ll have to do exactly that.
If the suit had been filed in the United States, the burden of proof would’ve been on the plaintiff—Irving—to show that he’d been unfairly maligned. But in Britain, the burden’s on the defendant—Deborah—to prove she didn’t.
For years, Deborah has refused to debate deniers. “I won’t debate fact,” she says. A trial gives Irving the public forum he craves, a chance to suggest that the Holocaust is hardly the unquestioned history the world claims it to be. It’s a chance for him to sow a few seeds of doubt in the public’s mind—seeds that could keep his publishing career flush and his lectures filled. It may even give him the legitimacy that he so craves. Many Jewish Brits want Deborah and her publishers to simply settle out of court. To let the matter slip quietly away.
But Deborah won’t do it. This time, she’ll take the denier on. “I can’t settle,” she finally says. “The man’s a liar, and someone has to say so.”
The man is a liar, and David Irving is eventually proven so in court. But it takes a team to prove it.
Deborah wants to speak for herself during the trial. She wants some of the survivors to be able to tell their own stories. “I make you a promise,” she tells a survivor. “The voice of suffering will be heard. I promise you that.” And that in itself is admirable.
But her legal team, led by solicitor Anthony Julius (the guy who, in English law, plots out the case) and barrister Richard Rampton (who actually speaks in court), doesn’t want either Deborah or the survivors to get on Irving’s stage. Anthony and Richard want the case to focus squarely on Irving’s work, and they believe that Deborah’s book—not Deborah herself—will be Irving’s most eloquent accuser. ” It’s not a test of your credibility,” Anthony says of the case. “It’s a test of his.”
This, oddly, becomes the story’s central point of tension—Deborah’s desire to speak, contrasted with her team’s desire to do what’s best for the case. But throughout it all, both Deborah and her team have the same laudable endgame in mind: to protect historical truth and to call to account those who would deny it.
Deborah is Jewish, and she seems to take her faith seriously on at least certain occasions. While touring Auschwitz, she stands by a pit—all that remains of one of the buildings used to execute Holocaust victims—and recites the Jewish Prayer of Mercy, which is often used during funerals.
“God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest upon the Divine Presence’s wings, within the range of the holy, pure and glorious …” she says—joined in the prayer by a historian who stands beside her, pulls off his cap and puts on a kippah.
The Jewish faith and people are referenced often throughout the movie—though frequently in negative ways when David Irving speaks. Irving and other deniers believe that the Holocaust is a way for Jews to engender sympathy (and collect money). In a video of an old speech, we see him displaying the picture of a Holocaust victim showing her numbered tattoo; Irving wonders how much money the woman has gathered because of that tattoo. He utters many anti-Semitic remarks throughout the film (and his previous statements are reported by Deborah’s lawyers), including a racist, anti-Semitic ditty he taught his daughter to sing. His supporters—skinheads and Nazi sympathizers—gather outside the court to support their man. “Filthy Jew!” we hear one say as Deborah walks into the courtroom.
In the background of a press conference, we see a stained glass window of St. George conquering a dragon. Auschwitz is referred to as a shrine. But when Richard tours it, he says, “We’re not here on a pilgrimage, we’re preparing a case.”
After the verdict, Irving tells the press that he’s no racist. He has hired domestic servants of every race, he says, “all very attractive girls with very nice breasts.” We briefly see one woman on Deborah’s legal team working as her boyfriend or husband (it’s unclear which) wakes up in bed. In court, Irving says that Deborah’s in-print attack on him was as damaging as being called a “wife beater” or a “pedophile.” “A verbal yellow star,” he says.
There are only three moments that would even vaguely qualify as visually violent in Denial: Irving is hit in the back with an egg while walking into court; Richard steps on a piece of barbed wire in Auschwitz that apparently punctures his shoe’s sole; and Deborah imagines, for just a second or two, Holocaust victims clawing at a window as gas seeps into their chamber.
But while the movie doesn’t feature many scenes of overt violence, Denial is built around one of the most horrific, most violent crimes in human history. References to Holocaust atrocities are frequent. Richard stares at huge, seemingly endless piles of shoes in Auschwitz—all that’s left of many of its victims. Irving and Deborah’s legal team argue about the methods used to execute Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. Likewise, the human cost of the Holocaust, while not replayed in gratuitous detail, is never far from our thoughts.
One f-word and two s-words, along with two uses of the word “h—” and five misuses of God’s name.
Characters drink wine, often in celebration after a good day in court. Richard smokes, even lighting a cigarette in Auschwitz.
We’ve already talked about this some, but we see Irving making a bevy of racist and anti-Semitic statements intended to be inflammatory and offensive.
There comes a point where Deborah feels alienated by her own legal counsel. She asks to testify before the judge, and Anthony refuses. She begs for Holocaust victims to have their day in court. Anthony says that the court is no place for victims to find closure or peace. When she insists to Anthony that she promised them a say, Anthony hisses that she better go back to them and break that promise.
As viewers—especially viewers used to our onscreen heroes speaking their minds and fighting enemies on all sides—we’re encouraged to sympathize with Deborah. Perhaps conditioned to do so.
“All I have is my voice and my conscience, and I have to listen to it,” she tells Richard.
“Trouble is,” Richard tells her, “what feels best isn’t necessarily what works best.”
It’s rare for a movie to laud a greater, difficult good over the righteous (and completely understandable) desire of an individual. Films are emotional works, and they often come to emotional conclusions: They don’t always tell us to do what feels good (though many, of course, do), but almost without exception, they tell us to do what feels right. This makes Denial an unusual work indeed. As Richard talks to Deborah, he tells her the main object is to win. And the best way to win is through, as he says, “an act of self-denial.”
Denial. The movie title refers to David Irving’s Holocaust denial, of course. But it also refers to Deborah’s self-denial. Her uneasy-but-committed trust in her own legal team. Her eventual willingness to submit to that team’s experience and guidance. It’s not easy, but she does it. And her faith pays off.
Denial is anchored by strong acting and even stronger subject matter: The importance of protecting truth and history. And it does so while staying relatively clean.
It’s still not a movie for everyone. The language can be harsh at moments, and The Holocaust is inherently a difficult subject. But it is a story that makes you think without making you squirm. And it’s hard to deny the coolness in that.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.