My behind-the-scenes ‘Denial’ story
“Denial,” the film opening nationwide on Sept. 30, captures the drama, importance, and personalities of the 2000 London Holocaust denial trial of David Irving vs. Penguin and Deborah Lipstadt.
In 1993, Lipstadt – then, as now, a distinguished professor at Emory University – wrote a book demonstrating that denial of the Holocaust wasn’t quirky history but anti-Semitic hate. In passing, she mentioned David Irving — British author of many books about World War II — as a dangerous denier of the Holocaust.
Lipstadt’s publisher –Penguin – had sold a small number of copies in the United Kingdom. Irving sued, something he did not do in the United States, where libel cases are difficult to win, especially if the plaintiff is a public figure. In the United Kingdom, if someone defames another in writing, they must prove that what they wrote was true.
Solicitor Anthony Julius — known for his legal representation of Princess Diana and his scholarly work on the anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot — represented Lipstadt without fee, until it became clear that Irving was determined to bring the matter to trial, and that this wasn’t a case that could afford to be lost or settled.
The film does not depict a conference call in which Julius explained to a room of American Jewish leaders what was at stake, and how much money needed to be raised to pay for solicitors, barristers, graduate student researchers and the world’s top experts. (“Denial” correctly notes Steven Spielberg’s support for the defense, but there were many more individuals and groups from the United States — and depressingly few from the U.K. — who put up the required funds.)
Toward the end of the film, Lipstadt (played superbly by Rachel Weisz, who captures her personality, intellect and accent) mentions what a great “team” she has had working years with her to win the case.
I was fortunate to have been part of that team. A staff member of the American Jewish Committee at the time, I was a friend of Lipstadt, had written a less important book on Holocaust denial and was a former trial lawyer specializing in high-profile cases. I helped raise the funds and worked with the lawyers, graduate students and experts, sometimes from London and sometimes from my home in Brooklyn (where the courtroom stenographer’s real-time transcript appeared on my computer, and I could communicate with a paralegal with a vibrating cell phone in the courtroom, if need be).
The “behind the scenes” work on the case was not portrayed in the movie, and many of the in-court events of note weren’t either, including testimony from world-class historians such as Peter Longerich and Christopher Browning. Nor was the trial’s “Dr. Strangelove” moment, when Irving mistakenly referred to the judge as “Mein Fuhrer,” rather than “My Lord.”
The omissions and the few artistic changes were absolutely necessary to tell the story, its ups and downs, and the imperative of exposing Irving’s distortion of history to promote hate.
Having lived through the case, knowing all the characters, I was astonished by how well each and every actor captured the person they played. When the film was being cast, I quipped to Lipstadt that of course Mel Gibson should play David Irving, but Timothy Spall was Irving reincarnate. Irving had tried to keep one foot in the world of respectability and another in the world of anti-Semites, but jumped into the latter with both feet when he became convinced by a fraudulent “scientific” report (by a man named Fred Leuchter — subject of the superb 1999 movie “Mr. Death” by Errol Morris), that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Irving was repeatedly demolished in the courtroom by Barrister Richard Rampton (played beautifully by Tom Wilkinson, who showed Rampton’s commitment, brilliance, and affection for Claret regardless of the time of day). Rampton got Irving to demonstrate his impressive capacity for self-delusion. Caught in lie after lie, but then proceeding as if he had not been, Irving reminded me of that 1950s inflatable clown with a lead bottom that one would knock down, only to see it slowly rise to become upright, as if nothing had happened.
Anthony Julius is one of the most brilliant people I know. One day we were all huddled in Julius’ office, with Rampton and the other barristers and solicitors on the phone, finishing a document that needed to be handed into court within the hour. Julius was fully engaged in the detailed discussion and at the same time vigorously typing on his computer. I peeked over his shoulder: He was writing a chapter of his book on art history.
Andrew Scott replicates Julius’ smarts, his inability to suffer fools and his laser-like commitment to doing everything to win the case. One of the main themes is the lawyers’ clarity that the defense had to be conducted as if it were a prosecution of Irving (what would a credible historian have done with the information before him?), and that no survivors would be called to testify. Lipstadt was on board with those decisions more easily than the film portrays, but it captures the difficult discussions and, in an intense scene, Julius’ harsh impatience, but intellectual power and sound reasoning.
Mark Gatiss as Van Pelt (the expert on Auschwitz) recreates his strong testimony, which was central to the case. (If you go to the website that has the trial records — hdot.org – you’ll find all the expert reports. Van Pelt’s is a full history of how Auschwitz changed, step by step, from a concentration camp for Poles to a genocidal factory. Historian Richard Evan’s is a blueprint for anyone interested in knowing how we know what we know about history.)
Of all the people on the team, I was happiest to see Laura Tyler’s contribution portrayed (ably by Caren Pistorius). Tyler was Anthony Julius’ paralegal, thrust into her first case. She and the two graduate students — who tracked through Irving’s voluminous writings to demonstrate how he distorted facts, always to benefit the Nazis in general and Hitler in particular — were the largely unheralded heroes at the time. Without their work, the courtroom success would have been impossible.
Irving was a falsifier of history, and part of the challenge of the trial was whether this was a case only about bad history, or one about hatred. Why would Irving’s errors always err on the side of diminishing or denying the Holocaust? What was the motive?
Irving’s vast connections with neo-Nazis and white supremacists (and his own racist and misogynist comments) showed that this wasn’t a case about the Holocaust any more than the claim that Jews poisoned wells was a question of water quality. Holocaust denial is about hatred and anti-Semitism.
Kenneth S. Stern is the executive director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation