“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” It is perhaps fitting that this quote, attributed to both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, actually comes from the preacher C.H. Spurgeon in the 1850s, while a different version was written by Jonathan Swift in 1710. If anything, the Internet has supercharged this statement. These days whole sites are dedicated to trumpeting conspiracy theories. The truth requires thought and effort, while falsehoods only need a loud voice and no shame. And perhaps one more thing is needed – an audience who finds the falsehoods easier to live with than the truth. Denial is a powerful temptation: no, 20 kids and their teachers didn’t die at Sandy Hook, it was actors creating and excuse to wipe out the 2nd Amendment. We didn’t go to the moon, it was just special effects. And on, and on, and on.
The apex event for deniers is the Holocaust. There are multiple books, articles, websites, etc., that push the position that it didn’t happen. Instead, it was a conspiracy by the Jews to get their own homeland in Palestine, or a few people died in the camps but there was no systematic extermination, or Hitler knew nothing of what was happening and has been completely misunderstood. Many rationals, but one outcome. In the 1990s, a major voice of the deniers, British historian David Irving, filed suit against an American history professor, Deborah Lipstadt, for defamation of character in her book about Holocaust deniers. Rather than bring the suit in US where he’d have to prove libel, Irving sued in England, where the burden of proof is on the defendant. Lipstadt was put into the position of proving the Holocaust actually happened.
Now that event has come to theaters. Denial tells the story of the trial, beginning with how Irving (Timothy Spall) targets Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for his suit. Lipstadt then must navigate the arcane terrain of British jurisprudence, including dealing with both a solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), and a barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson).
The story was adapted by David Hare (Damages, The Hours, The Reader) and directed by Mick Jackson. Jackson has worked mostly in television, where he won an Emmy for his direction of “Temple Grandin.” It’s been a decade and a half since he directed a feature, though in the 1990s he did L.A. Story, The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston, and a personal cheesetastic favorite of mine, 1997’s Volcano (with one of the best tag lines ever: “The Coast is Toast.”) Jackson and Hare illuminate the legal case beautifully – in the trial scenes, only the transcript of the actual testimony is used for dialogue – and they also delineate the denier mindset to make it understandable for the audience.
Weisz is excellent as Lipstadt, nailing the professor’s Queens accent along with the emotional truth of the situation. Wilkinson makes a brilliant legal mind accessible while Spall manages to humanize Irving even as he also shows his deplorable and pathetic nature. Scott is known to most these days for his portrayal of Moriarty on “Sherlock,” though as Julius he imbues the role with a steely intellectual control. There is another connection to “Sherlock” as the series co-creator and writer, Mark Gatiss, who also plays Mycroft Holmes, appears here as a historical expert on Auschwitz.
The emotional heart of the movie comes when Lipstadt and Rampton travel to Auschwitz in preparation for the trial. Seeing the scope of the camp, with a perimeter that ran for miles, along with what’s left of the gas chambers – they were dynamited by the Nazis before the camp fell to the Russians to hide the genocide – is powerful.
If anything, the problem of denial has grown greater in the years since the trial. Religion has always had trouble with Gnosticism – those who feel they have “special knowledge” to which regular people have no access. These days there’s a secular Gnosticism that shares the claim of special knowledge, even though it indulges in circular logic, and in many cases flights of intellectual fancy. I’ll end with another quote, this time from Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” As Denial makes clear, it’s imperative that people such as Irving are denied any validity, for their intellectual hubris removes honor from those who have suffered and died, in truth.