Toronto Film Review: ‘Denial’

DENIAL TIFF
Laurie Sparham / Bleecker Street

Rachel Weisz is a historian sued for libel by a British Holocaust denier in a courtroom film too muddled to bring its issues to life.

The best courtroom dramas are riveting intellectual thrillers. They’re about legal and moral puzzles heroically assembled, piece by piece, in a flow of interlocking information. That’s true of such classic films as “12 Angry Men,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” or “The Verdict,” and it was true of last year’s superb “Woman in Gold,” in which Helen Mirren played a Jewish refugee who fought, in the courts of Austria and the U.S., to reclaim a legendary Klimt painting stolen from her family 60 years before by the Nazis.

Considering that legacy, “Denial,” a drama based on recent Holocaust history — or, in fact, on the denial of it — would seem to have the makings of a terrific movie. It’s about the British libel suit that was brought, in 1996, against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, by David Irving, the British historian who Lipstadt accused of being a Holocaust denier. Outside of the context of a London courtroom, there was little ambiguity about Irving’s writings and speeches: He was — and remains — a Holocaust denier. One who’s proudly invested in his beliefs and makes no attempt to hide them. He claims that there were never gas chambers at Auschwitz. He claims (for a while, he soft-pedaled this) that Hitler had no plans to decimate European Jewry. He claims that photographs of Holocaust victims taken by Allied soldiers in 1945 only prove that those soldiers, and not the Germans, were responsible for the killings.

If you look up almost any video on YouTube of David Irving spouting his poison (there are lots of them), you can feel like you’re watching the hate version of a man claiming that the Earth is flat. Essentially, Irving is a conspiracy theorist. (If you deny the Holocaust, you’re saying that a lot of people have banded together to tell a very big lie.) In “Denial,” when Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a 49-year-old history professor at Emory University in Atlanta, first hears that she’s being sued, she’s upset, but also incredulous. In America, the ultimate defense against libel is the truth, and the truth she most definitely has on her side. Irving, who drives a Rolls and has gotten wealthy off his books (no one ever said that Holocaust denial is unprofitable), is played by Timothy Spall with the grin of a mad duke and a demagogic bluster that makes him at once friendly and impervious.

As it turns out, the rules of legal engagement are a lot different in England. In a British libel suit, the burden of proof is on the defendant. Lipstadt must demonstrate that what she wrote about Irving in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust,” is valid. In an age where facts have been reduced to data, and where what was once called “reality” now competes with different versions of reality (i.e., in the age of Donald Trump), this would seem to set the stage for an invigorating drama about truth, the Holocaust, and the solemn potency of the law. But for all the powerful relevance of its subject, “Denial,” directed by Mick Jackson from a script by David Hare, never finds its grip. It’s a curiously awkward and slipshod movie that winds up being about nothing so much as the perverse, confounding eccentricities of the British legal system.

Rachel Weisz, who can be a great actress, plays Lipstadt in reddish-orange curls that hang down on either side of her face like a tent, and she speaks in a flat blaring Queens accent that, when you first hear it, sounds authentic enough, but her tone of voice never varies. Her performance rarely shakes off the quality of being an acting exercise. Early on, Lipstadt stands in front of a class and asks her students how, exactly, they can be so sure that the Holocaust happened. A young woman replies “Photographic evidence,” and drifting back to the horrifying footage of the death camps, you think, “Yes, good answer.” But then Lipstadt makes a fascinating point. She says that there exists not one photograph of a Holocaust victim inside a gas chamber — and that’s because the Nazis didn’t allow any such images to be taken. That chilling fact, planted early in the movie, sets up a suspenseful question, one that will theoretically rule the courtroom drama to come: How do you prove that the Holocaust happened?

The obvious answer should be: You do it by presenting the inexorably vast historical record — the Nazi orders and concentration-camp files and train schedules and testimony of witnesses, from the German guards to the Sonderkommandos to the survivors. Lipstadt arrives in London, where she meets Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), the British solicitor she has hired to run her legal defense. He’s a defamation expert who also happened to win Princess Diana her divorce, and he insists on some peculiar parameters.

He refuses to put any Holocaust survivors on the stand, because he says that they’ll be “humiliated” — and the first sign that the movie is heading off the tracks is that Hare’s script barely clarifies what that means. Is Julius worried about the well-being of the witnesses? (He needn’t be.) Or is he worried that their testimony won’t play? (Why wouldn’t it?) He then tells Lipstadt that she can’t testify either. This seems bizarre, and not just because she’s under attack. The full title of her book is “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” and she could testify — precisely, definitively — about all the things that David Irving has falsified. The bare bones of this situation are accurate (in the trial, neither Lipstadt nor any survivors testified). But the way that it’s explained — badly — almost makes it seem as if Lipstadt’s lawyer, too, wants to engage in a genteel form of Holocaust denial.

The team’s key courtroom player is Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), a dour Scottish libel lawyer, and the second sign that the film is going off the tracks is the scene in which he and Lipstadt visit Auschwitz, scouting it for “evidence.” The camp itself, with its barb wire and chimney and iconic train tracks, is a looming monument of horror, but even as they’re standing on the collapsed roof of the former gas chamber, it should be clear to anyone that nothing in the 50-year-old remains of Auschwitz can prove that the Holocaust happened. How could it? It’s a bunch of old buildings, and the Nazis detonated the crematorium before the end of the war. Yet the way “Denial” treats the physical fact of Auschwitz as if it could prove something  — the way it merges the evidentiary and the mythic — indicates that the film’s basic dramatic sense isn’t all there.

The crucial thing missing is what should be the essence of a courtroom drama: our immersion in how Lipstadt’s lawyers stake out their strategy. We keep hearing, rather tediously, about what they’re not going to do, but we hear next to nothing about what they are going to do. Andrew Scott’s performance as Julius is woefully unconvincing — he doesn’t seem like a devoted lawyer, he seems like a myopic corporate putz. In court, Irving insists on representing himself, which results in a lot of hollow fire. He wheels out one of his favorite tropes: that there were “no holes” in the ceilings of the alleged gas chambers, so there’s no way that Zyklon B cyanide pellets could have been dropped into them. (Actually, the holes were there, recorded in blueprints and photographs.)

Finally, out of nowhere, Rampton stands up before the judge and begins to present bits and pieces of meticulously researched evidence that the Holocaust actually happened, and that David Irving faked his research in order to deny it. The wording of a letter, written by Heinrich Himmler, about train transports was changed by Irving to make it sound as if the trains weren’t delivering death cargos — and that Hitler never knew about them. Protecting Hitler, it turns out, is Irving’s driving obsession. He’s a cultist who fixated on the Führer when he was eight years old, and he never let go. When the evidence starts to come out in court, the trial swings Lipstadt’s way.

The strange thing is, she has nothing to do with presenting, or even preparing, any of it. Hare’s script gets tripped up on the basic rules of screenwriting, and Jackson pastes scenes together with Scotch Tape, yet there’s a moment when the movie announces its big “theme”: Lipstadt gets told that sitting tight, saying nothing, keeping herself out of the trial will win the case. What she must practice, in a word, is denial. Get it? It’s one of those tidy/clever David Hare literary puns. Yet to live up to that pun, the movie reduces Lipstadt to a passive agent in her own story, a mere bystander. By the end of “Denial,” it’s gratifying to see a historical snake-oil salesman like David Irving get taken down. (He’s now hawking holiday tours of concentration camps — that’s not a joke.) But the larger issue, of how a historical lie tries to become truth, barely gets brushed.

Toronto Film Review: 'Denial'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, September 11, 2016. Rating: PG-13. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production

A Bleecker Street release of a Krasnoff/Foster Entertainment, Showbox Films, Participant Media, BBC Films production. Produced by Gary Foster, Russ Krasnoff. Executive producer: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Andrew Karpen, Guy Heeley.

Crew

Director: Mick Jackson. Screenplay: David Hare. Camera (color, widescreen): Haris Zambarloukos. Editor: Justine Wright.

With

Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Alex Jennings.

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  1. Jonathan Hayes says:

    This is an excellent film that alerts us to the danger of denying the truth, and as the parliamentary petition accessed by clicking the link given below shows denial is an increasing problem. Please share the link and sign the petition because this will help to stop the illegal employment or in extreme cases enslavement of children in the UK.

  2. kerrylucas says:

    What a ridiculous review.. I thought a film review is about the quality of the film in question, not a one sided opinion of historical facts that are at best, highly questionable!

  3. demosthenes says:

    Any open minded scrutineer of the court case Irving vLipstadt,would agree with George Carman that Irving should have won.Had he the humility to fight for a jury trial he would probably have won easily.The trial judge accused the principal witness against Irvings,almost universally acknowledged historiographical assiduity,Richard Evans,of having a loose relationship with the truth (this from memory).
    I would guess that Hare fails because he is not true to the evidence.It would require almost supernatural courage to go against the holocaust mythos- created post 1970;in which,even when the death count posted at the gates of Auswitz,was reduced from c.4m.to c.1m. the mythic 6million Jewish holocaust victims number was ,against the rules of elementary arithmetic, unaltered….go figure.

  4. Elliott Abosh says:

    While professor Deboroah E Lipstadt was correct in stating the Holocaust existed, against plaintiff David Irving, she is inaccurate in regard that people deny the plight of the polar bear due to the ice caps melting.

    The fact is the polar bear population increased from 25,000 from 1960 to 2000, but poachers after that are killing them at 500 a year.

    On this point Professor Lipstadt is wrong.

  5. Spoff says:

    I suppose it is difficult to review a film of this nature without venturing onto hallowed ground and discussing the personalities and actions of the real characters upon whom the movie is based – so the reviewer can be forgiven for doing so. A review is a matter of opinion however and whereas the Author is free to say what he thinks about it – as film – when he crosses over to the facts behind the actual case some accuracy is called for.
    This: “He claims that there were never gas chambers at Auschwitz” is not accurate despite the fact that Irving has served time in an Austrian prison for allegedly saying so. His comment referred to the “gas chamber” at Auschwitz that is shown to tourists and is acknowledged by all Historians as having been constructed after War’s end. Irving did not “insist” on representing himself, he had prepared his defense and instructed a barrister who pulled out at the last moment.
    Irving is a pugnacious fellow whose arrogance has aroused the ire of many. Nevertheless, his contribution to the History of WWII is considerable and has been acknowledged by many reputable Historians. He has published evidence of Nazi atrocities (including mobile gas chambers) against Jewish partisans in East Europe so the impression given here that he is a dedicated right-wing apologist for the regime is not wholly accurate. To portray him as such detracts from the real importance of this narrative.
    The fact is, History cannot be fairly tried in the manner this film purports to do, as a reading of the trial transcript makes plain. All History is “revisionist” in nature (if it were not, no new History books would be published). A large percentage of it is interpretation and opinion, particularly that of War History which deals with a period during which facts are deliberately concealed for security reasons and each side has a strong interest in purveying falsehood to deceive the enemy and encourage allies and troops.
    I do not support either Irving or Lipstadt’s version of History. I support the study of History and regret that this “trial” and the exploitation of it detract from it. The judicial process, with its arcane rules and procedures is simply not suited to the task.

  6. Jon katze says:

    As is virtually always the case with Glieberman, he can’t stop himself from revealing too much of any movie he reviews. It’s not just bad judgment, it’s a sign he’s obnoxious. If someone asks him “have you seen film (x) he’s the idiot that will respond, “oh, you mean where the girl gets hit by a car in the last scene…etc” How, why is such a well regarded entity like Variety, employing such s truly awful critic?

    • Ethan says:

      It seems a little more defensible to reveal things that happen in the movie when they’re based on historical record (i.e. the holocaust denier lost in court and now sells holocaust tours), but it’s true he does reveal alot. Other than that, I think you’re dead wrong about Gleiberman’s judgment and skill – I thought this was a terrifically written review of a movie I didn’t know anything about, and I might see it just to see if I agree with his opinion. Like this opinion, you don’t have to agree with it, but I wish all critics were as eloquent and interesting as Gleiberman.

  7. david499 says:

    Least we forget, David Hare’s last Holocaust exploitation movie was The Reader…about a beautiful ex-SS guard who like to bath a 15 year old boy and then have sex with him. It too was about a trial about Auschwitz.

    Unfortunately, Mr. Hare has no more concern for accuracy or truth in this Holocaust related film than he did in his last. Odd since the movie is supposed to be about defending historical accuracy.

    Despite what Mr. Hare and others have proclaimed, the Irving v. Penguin was not about “proving the Holocaust.” Judge Gray specifically stated in his Judgment:
    “It is no part of my function to attempt to make findings as to what actually happened during the Nazi regime.”

    Irving opened the case telling the court: “I have never held myself out to be a Holo caust expert, nor have I written books about what is now called the Holocaust.”

    The case is better described as a wide-ranging questioning of Irving’s competence as a historian; an ex post facto effort to substantiate Lipstadt’s claim that Irving had falsified historical facts.

    Judge Gray broke the alleged falsification of historical facts into 4 elements:

    (a) 19 specific individual criticisms of Irving’s historiography on esoteric points like Hitler’s trial in 1924

    or a mistranslation of an entry in Himmler’s telephone log for December 1, 1941

    (b) his [Irving’s] portrayal of Hitler…

    (c) his claims in relation to Auschwitz

    (d) the bombing of Dresden.”

    The Denial should have been an truthful exploration of the actual important issues that Irving v. Penguin raised. Instead, it seems to be no more than humbug.

  8. Chizz says:

    I knew there was some fool on the planet who liked the ‘superb “Woman in Gold,”’… we found him!

  9. Ben says:

    Mr. Gleiberman, could you stop using phrases like “basic rules of screenwriting” and crap like that ?
    Do you really think that a master like David Hare doesn’t know them ? Your review gives the reader the strange impression, that the film is not to your liking, because it’s not conventional enough. Really? Maybe you should focus on reviewing features like “The Mechanic 2”, which you were very fond of, and leave adult dramas for others. Thanks.

  10. Frank Stone says:

    This is a bad review of a movie. Seems like this person did not read the book written by deborah lipstadt, and is disappointed that there was not more exaggeration in the movie. (not nearly enough micheal bay for him. As for me, I’m still looking forward to seeing the movie. Thanks for your time.:)

    • kenjimoto says:

      Where do you get any of that? How do you interpret his well-founded complaints of dramatic inertia as a demand for exaggeration—let alone the bombast of “micheal bay”? Seriously, it sounds like this is your first experience reading a movie review.

      • kenjimoto says:

        I was offended not by your interpretation of the film, which is fair enough, but by your assumption that the critic—one of the best known in the country—didn’t like it because it wasn’t a “Micheal Bay” movie. You shot your argument in the foot by going so far off-base.

      • Frank Stone says:

        It seems to me that you were offended by my comment, but the truth is that the film really tries to tell a compelling story about the Lipstad experience in England. The film clearly says that the court case is happening to her but it’s not about her which stays true to Lipstad’s story. This reviewer tells you the whole story and in the end says, “The strange thing is, she has nothing to do with presenting, or even preparing, any of it. Hare’s script gets tripped up on the basic rules of screenwriting, and Jackson pastes scenes together with Scotch Tape, yet there’s a moment when the movie announces its big “theme”:.. But the larger issue, of how a historical lie tries to become truth, barely gets brushed.”In my opinion, the film stayed true to Lipstad’s story, and Owen simply didn’t understand the essence of the film. He wanted a fake Hollywood story, which simply didn’t happen. This reviewer gave the Purge Election a better rating than this film. Purge election!!!! come on. So don’t tell me he’s great at his job. Thanks.

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