Tzivi reviews Denial

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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 1993.

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.

Unlike American 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 longer alive.”

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.

Denial 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:

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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.

Photo Credits: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street

After 35 years in Chicago, Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) now lives in Brooklyn. She recently released a new eBook, " Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter ."... Read More

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