My favorite Yiddish Expression is “Man Plans;
God Laughs.” In this instance, the amazing life of Deborah Esther Lipstadt reached its
ironic culmination the week of the first nationally televised debate between
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald J. Trump.
The debate was held on the evening of Monday,
Sept. 26, so when Denial – the film about
Lipstadt’s courtroom face-off
with Holocaust denier David Irving--opened in theaters in Los Angeles and
Manhattan on Friday, Sept. 30, it was at the edge of mind for everyone in the
audience, and the parallels between life and art were unmistakable.
So who is Deborah Esther Lipstadt and
how did she come to find herself in a courtroom in London in 2000?
Lipstadt is a Jewish American historian who began teaching at
Emory University in 1993 after stints at the University of Washington and UCLA.
She graduated from CCNY in 1969 and received her Ph.D. from Brandeis in 1976.
Her first book, The Zionist Career of Louis Lipsky 1900-1921
(based on her Brandeis dissertation) was published in 1981. Her second book, Beyond Belief: The American Press and The
Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945, was published in 1986. Her third book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault
on Truth and Memory, was published in
On September 5, 1996, David Irving — a
“revisionist” historian specializing in the military and political history of
World War II — filed a libel suit against Lipstadt and her British publisher
Penguin Books. Irving accused them of
libel, claiming that Lipstadt’s references to Irving in Denying the
Holocaust had defamed his
character, impugned his credentials as a historian, and damaged his ability to
earn a living.
courts which presume that an accused is innocent until proven guilty, British
courts assume that the person filing the suit has been libeled unless the
accused can prove otherwise. In other words, Lipstadt
and her legal team had to demonstrate the factuality of the Holocaust in order
to prove that denying the Holocaust was a lie. The presiding judge — Sir Charles Gray — announced his
decision in favor of Lipstadt and Penguin Books on April 11, 2000.
One could dismiss Denial as “just another film about the Holocaust” (as some of my
fellow film critics have already done), but I sincerely believe that would
totally miss the point. Although the transcript of the Lipstadt/Irving trial does,
indeed, focus on the Holocaust, what is actually on trial is nothing less than
truth, human reason, and the very meaning of the word “fact.”
As Lipstadt says in the film (and
in both of the long Q and A session that I attended after early screenings):
“The Holocaust happened. Slavery happened. The Black Death
happened. The earth is round. The polar icecaps are melting. And Elvis is no
In short, Lipstadt, who is now the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, believes some things
are “facts.” Some questions do not have two sides. You may, indeed, have a
right to your own opinion, but that does not make your opinion valid just you
happen to believe it. If you are not open to evidence, then you are not seeking
truth; you are after something else. What is “truth?”
What is the different between “fact” and “opinion?” What questions could be
more relevant in 2016?
Actress Rachel Weisz gives herself heart and
soul to the role of Deborah Lipstadt. Lipstadt, a woman who always
lived by her words, was ironically forced by fate to sit silent at one of the
most crucial moments of her life. So Weisz must
communicate the intensity of Lipstadt’s concentration through the
burning of her eyes, and she does. Lipstadt is a fish out of water, forced to
swim across “the pond,” and so we — in the audience — learn as she learns.
Watch. Listen. Stand by your principles.
Early on, screenwriter David Hare has her tell us that her
mother named her Deborah so she would always know herself to be a judge, a
warrior, and a leader of her people. When the moment comes, Weisz convinces us that she is ready.
Actor Timothy Spall, on the other hand, must
show us the torment of being David Irving. His craving for attention is so
great, his need for affirmation is so desperate, that he will do anything to
get his “fix.” He is crafty and wily, clearly intelligent but totally
unprincipled. In a masterful stroke, director Mick Jackson sends Irving to
court on the day of the judgment in an outfit that reveals his true colors.
Spall’s performance is so perfect that, at that moment, I almost felt sorry for him.
The human warmth in Denial comes from Tom Wilkinson (cast as barrister Richard
Rampton), while the intellectual rigor comes from Andrew Scott (cast as
solicitor Anthony Julius). Alex Jennings ably shoulders the weight of Sir Charles Gray (the presiding judge).
Surely when the producers of Denial received their greenlight, none
of them had any clue how timely their film would be on the day of its
theatrical premiere in the U.S. And yet, there can be no more eloquent use of
the lessons of the Holocaust. The reason why there can never be “just another
film about the Holocaust” is precisely because the facts of the Holocaust
contain within themselves two of humanity’s greatest mysteries: How could this
ever have happened? How can we ensure it never happens again?
In the end, we must go where the facts lead us,
even if that means staring into a black hole.
opens today (Oct. 7) at the AMC
River East in Streeterville, the Century 12/ CinéArts
6 in Evanston, and the Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Lincoln Park. It
arrives at the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park on Friday, Oct. 14.
To read more about the two Q and As I attended,
visit my blog: http://ff2media.com/secondcitytzivi/2016/09/28/denial-2016/
Top Photo: Rachel Weisz
as Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and
Holocaust Studies at Emory University.
Bottom Photo: Tom Wilkinson as
Barrister Richard Rampton.
Credits: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street