The trial of David Irving is the subject of the docudrama “Denial.”
While it was released in September 2016, I viewed it for the first time last month and found its subject particularly relevant in light of recent events.
A BBC production, it should have had all the characteristics of a well-researched, cleverly scripted docudrama powerfully portrayed by a superb cast.
In fact, it was a mixed experience, at times overacted, unnecessarily reducing Irving to more of a caricature than he really is, and the scriptwriter playing a number of emotional cards that were at odds with the ruthless rationality of the legal team acting as defense.
In 1998, Irving brought a libel case against Deborah Lipstadt, an American professor of Holocaust studies whom Irving accused of ruining his reputation as a historian.
The defense’s case was based on exposing Irving’s programmatic, ideological and deliberate revision of historical facts and evidence, and also proving that the Holocaust did in fact happen.
The core of the film takes place in the courtroom, so that, having known and followed the real case 20 years ago, the outcome of the film is already known.
Timothy Spall as Irving came across as an intellectual chameleon, saying one thing in his writing, then defending it in court by revising it further and further away from what he had originally written.
But what remained unchanged was his ideological commitment to revising the history of the Third Reich, Nazism, Hitler and the Holocaust, in particular, Auschwitz.
Spall’s portrayal was a mixture of eccentric buffoon, sham academic, sinister supremacist, racist and slightly perplexed citizen wondering why freedom of speech did not extend to his opinions, historical judgments and public statements.
Rachel Weisz as Professor Lipstadt conveyed something of the intellectual energy and moral passion that drives scholars of events so pivotal in recent human history as Holocaust studies.
Yet, sidelined for legal reasons, the script at key moments struggled to give her convincing opportunity to express that intellectual and moral energy.
She wins no arguments about how the case is to be handled. When stressed, she goes running unaccompanied in central London at night, despite the hate speech and demonstrations aimed at her each time she enters the court; her own inner life as a Jewish scholar is rarely evident.
The strongest link in the drama is her lawyer (Queen’s Counsel or QC Richard Rampton) played by Tom Wilkinson.
The exchanges with Irving in the film are psychologically convincing and emotionally persuasive in the two voices, one cavalier and confidently convinced by his own ideology, the other patiently laying the charges outside the gates that will demolish the fundamental credibility and intellectual integrity of Irving’s entire written corpus.
I have long had an interest in Holocaust studies and remember the furor Irving created in the 1990s, and again when he was jailed for Holocaust denial in Austria.
What this film does, despite the flaws, is show us the sinister underside of fake news, hate-driven ideology and revision of history as a programmatic exercise in persuasion.
Yet more serious still than these grave dangers, the film comes as a warning of what happens when anti-Semitism, racism and white supremacism are confronted by mere law.
The law can find against it; it cannot eradicate it or persuade those who hold such beliefs that they are morally wrong or their views intellectually untenable, legally disqualified or politically toxic.
That is a matter for much deeper reflection for a society like ours, now busy redefining the moral and social parameters within which we will all have to live.
Holocaust studies is now an established area of historical research and reflection. The Holocaust itself remains a powerful generative event inspiring novels, poetry, art, films, music, documentaries as well as academic study, writing and further reflection.
The time is soon coming when there will be no survivors, therefore no witnesses, and there will remain those whose ideological goal is the elimination of the Holocaust from the historic record or a diminishing of its significance or reinterpreting of it as less evil than it was in fact and in reality.
For those reasons, one comment in the film – made by QC Rampton played by Wilkinson, standing in the delousing chamber at Auschwitz and asking a question that should have been addressed decades ago – is more urgent now: Why has there never been a proper internationally sponsored scientific, forensic and historically documented study of the very evidence Holocaust deniers deny exists?
In our time, in the zeitgeist of a resurgent nationalistic right in Europe and the U.S., the securing of that scientific, forensic, historic documented evidence is becoming increasingly urgent.
Lest we forget; lest we fail to remember. Lest memory be erased.
James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this review first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language.
Director: Mick Jackson.
Writers: David Hare (screenplay) and Deborah Lipstadt (based on her book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier”).
Cast: Rachel Weisz (Deborah Lipstadt), Tom Wilkinson (Richard Rampton), Timothy Spall (David Irving).
The film’s website is here.