October 22, 2018

The Holocaust defense in the face of ‘Denial’

There was a time when the esteemed Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt would never have imagined that one of her books might be turned into a dramatic feature film.  But in 2000, a series of startling events unfolded for Lipstadt, beginning when British Holocaust denier David Irving announced that he was suing her for libel in the British courts.  He asserted that Lipstadt’s 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” had smeared him, damaging his reputation and livelihood.  

Irving eventually lost his case, and Lipstadt went on to write her 2005 memoir of the lawsuit, “Denial: Holocaust History on Trial” (previously published as “History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier”).  The story of their courtroom battle was so dramatic, and the stakes of proving the verity of the Holocaust so high, that, several years later, Hollywood producers came calling on the Jewish scholar.  The result is Mick Jackson’s new film, “Denial,” the saga of Lipstadt’s courtroom ordeal and ultimate victory, starring Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt.

Having taught at UCLA and currently a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Lipstadt is considered one of the nation’s leading experts on Holocaust denial. But back in the late 1980s, when some esteemed professors from Hebrew University suggested to Lipstadt that she should delve into the topic, she was initially hesitant. “I thought, ‘Why would people even believe that absurdity?’ ” Lipstadt said in a telephone interview during the film’s press day in New York. “Would someone ask a scientist to write about flat earth theory? … It just seemed over the top.” 

Even so, she agreed to explore the topic because of her respect for the Hebrew University professors, who viewed Holocaust denial as a new and insidious form of anti-Semitism. Six years later, her studies became the subject of her groundbreaking book, “Denying the Holocaust.”  

The tome revealed a disturbing trend of pseudo-historians who were manipulating history in an attempt to debunk the Shoah — creating the illusion that there is a valid “other side” to Holocaust history.

Weisz (left) and Deborah Lipstadt. Photo courtesy of EPK.TV

The denier who stood out as most dangerous among them was Irving, who had earned some favorable reviews in mainstream publications as well as scholarly esteem for his books about World War II and the Third Reich. In “Denying the Holocaust,” Lipstadt describes Irving as a “Hitler partisan wearing blinkers,” who distorted data in order to reach his “untenable” conclusions.

Irving argued that gas chambers were never used to systematically kill Jews; that there had never been a Third Reich plan to annihilate European Jewry; that Hitler was probably the biggest fan the Jews had in Nazi-occupied Europe and that Holocaust survivors were either liars or charlatans.

Before the libel trial, Irving had even shown up with a camera crew at one of Lipstadt’s lectures and declared that he would give $1,000 to anyone who could prove that Hitler ordered the extermination of the Jews. “He popped up in the back … and it was a pretty horrible moment,” Lipstadt told the Journal.

Early in the film, we see that interaction during the lecture, as well as Lipstadt responding to Irving that she does not debate deniers, just as she wouldn’t argue with someone who insists that Elvis is still alive.

Later in the movie, Lipstadt can be seen laughing when, in 1995, she receives a letter from her British publisher, Penguin UK, informing her that Irving intends to sue her for libel. The scholar doesn’t take the threat of  a lawsuit seriously, and promptly tosses the letter into the trash. 

But a year later, Irving indeed files suit in Britain, which puts Lipstadt in an unexpectedly difficult bind. In a United States courtroom, Irving would have been considered a public person and to win a libel suit would have had to prove Lipstadt maligned him with malicious intent. But in England, the reverse is the case: The burden of proof was on Lipstadt to show Irving deliberately distorted history because of his underlying anti-Semitism. In order to win, her legal team also had to prove that the Holocaust had, indeed, occurred.

In the film, as the trial gets underway, the bold, outspoken Lipstadt chafes at the fact that her attorneys will not let her testify, since their strategy is to focus on Irving alone. Nor will Holocaust survivors be allowed to give testimony, lest Irving — who is representing himself — traumatize them further. “People will say I’m a coward,” Lipstadt protests when she learns she will not be able to take the stand. “It’s the price [to] pay for winning,” one of her lawyers replies.  

Lipstadt suffers angst and sleepless nights throughout the grueling, three-month trial.

But her team’s strategy proves correct. As Judge Charles Gray reads from his verdict, he calls Irving “a right-wing, pro-Nazi polemicist” who persistently distorted historical evidence for ideological reasons.

In real life, as in the movie, Lipstadt was relieved and elated at the verdict. But, she said, she nevertheless had trepidations, some years later, when producers contacted her about turning her book “Denial” into a movie. “I said, ‘Before I give you the green light, you have to understand that this is a film about fighting for truth; you can’t pretty it up or fictionalize it,’ ” said Lipstadt, whose latest book, “Holocaust:  An American Understanding,” was published this summer. “And they heard me very clearly.” 

Screenwriter David Hare (“The Reader”) spent hours with Lipstadt before writing his script, which took all its courtroom dialogue directly from trial transcripts. And Weisz (“The Constant Gardener”) also hung out with the scholar in order to absorb her persona.

The actress was drawn to the role, in large part, because “it was in the end a very uplifting story about a woman’s fight for truth and justice, and a woman standing up to a bully,” Weisz said in a telephone interview from New York, where she lives with her husband, James Bond star Daniel Craig.

Weisz also wanted to play Lipstadt for personal reasons: “I’m not English, after all; my parents were refugees,” she said. Her Jewish-Hungarian father fled Budapest with his family in around 1938, when he was just 7. And her Austrian mother, daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, “had memories of being 5 years old and suddenly neighbors and kids stopped playing with her and speaking to her because she was half Jewish,” Weisz said.  Her mother’s family escaped Vienna to England two weeks before Germany’s invasion of Austria. Weisz’s mother later converted to Judaism before marrying the actress’ father, a prolific scientific inventor.  

Young Rachel grew up in the shadow of her parents’ wartime experiences. “If you and your family have to leave a country, even to find safety, it defines who you are for the rest of your days,” she said. “They talked about it all the time; it just became normal to me.”

Weisz went on to study English at Cambridge University, where she also fell in love with acting; she began her movie career performing in independent films such as “Stealing Beauty” (1996) and burst into stardom with her turn in the 1999 blockbuster “The Mummy,” opposite Brendan Fraser.

That same year she also performed in another film that drew on her Jewish heritage:  Istvan Szabo’s “Sunshine,” the saga of how anti-Semitism affects three generations of a Hungarian-Jewish family, including their experiences during the time of the Holocaust.

But Weisz had never visited Auschwitz-Birkenau until she took on the role of Lipstadt for “Denial.” She learned about the workings of the camp while reading some of Lipstadt’s books, but was not prepared for her emotions as she performed scenes outside Auschwitz’s perimeter. (Shooting feature films is prohibited inside the former camp). “I was struck by the level of industrialization — the systematic order and the lack of waste in terms of exploiting and using every part of the human body,” she said. “How incredibly organized it was, was very startling.”

Interior sections of Auschwitz were re-created on a set in England; for the scene in which Lipstadt recites the El Male Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead, above a gas chamber, Weisz learned to how to say the Hebrew words of the Jewish prayer.  “It had undeniable power,” she said.

In another sequence, set in a camp barracks, Weisz passionately argues with her lead barrister, who is interested only in learning facts that can help him win the case, and not in memorializing the Holocaust. She tartly tells him to show some respect for the dead.

Lipstadt, who was on the set at the time, recalled that when Weisz finished shooting that scene, she said, “That wasn’t acting.”

As for actor Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Irving, Weisz said, “What he says is pretty shocking, but what was brilliant in his performance is that he had a certain charm.  There were moments when I almost felt sorry for him.”

Weisz said she believes the film is especially relevant today, given the racially charged rhetoric of presidential candidate Donald Trump and the escalation of anti-Semitism in Europe. But she disagrees with those who believe the verdict against Irving could dampen free speech among historians.  

“David Irving brought this lawsuit against Deborah,” she said.  “He was trying to censor her free speech.”

Denial” opens Sept. 30 in theaters in Los Angeles.