Based on a true story, Denial is a fascinating courtroom drama that delves deep into the issues of freedom of speech, the justice system, and the role of historians. It revolves around a noteworthy 2000 libel case tried in the United Kingdom and brought by a particularly infamous British Holocaust denier named David Irving, brilliantly portrayed by Timothy Spall, against a respected American Holocaust historian, played by Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz. Weisz’s character Deborah Lipstadt becomes a target of the provocative amateur historian Irving after she publishes a book about Holocaust denial that harshly criticizes his writings. He claims she defamed his name and therefore decides to sue her in the British court system, which, unlike, the American system does not assume that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. Along with her publisher Penguin Books, she hires a group of high-powered British lawyers, including the solicitor who represented Princess Diana and a barrister specializing in libel law who is played by the always terrific Oscar-nominated actor Tom Wilkinson Wilkinson. Much of the film takes place during the trial as the defense team prepares for the highly unusual task of proving that the Holocaust really happened in order to prove that Irving’s case is unfounded. Consequently, the filmmakers quite effectively attempt to grapple with what forms of speech are protected and and whether something that is widely perceived as offensive like Holocaust denial should be allowed a platform in public. Furthermore, I was greatly intrigued by learning about some of the intricate details of the British legal system, something that I knew little about and assumed was much more similar to the American system. There were also emotionally powerful moments, especially as Weisz’s character and her legal team visit the ruins of the Auschwitz gas chambers. Overall, I found it to be a compelling movie that raised significant points about justice and what is acceptable in society while presenting a gripping story about a rather unusual trial.
An American of Jewish and German heritage, Deborah Lipstadt remains on the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia as a Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies and is the author of several historical books, including her seminal work Denying the Holocaust published in 1993. That book was the basis for David Irving’s lawsuit that he brought forth in 1996 and was finally decided in her favor in a 334-page judgement in 2000 disproving many of his claims about the Holocaust.
David Irving started his career as a largely reputable World War II historian who wrote extensively beginning in the 1960s primarily about Nazi Germany. Although he lived during World War II as a British citizen and his father served in the British military, sometime around 1988, he became a revisionist historian who felt Hitler was misconstrued and that the Holocaust was fabricated. He was heavily influenced by the discredited pseudo-scientific Leuchter Report written by an American execution expert who tried to find evidence disputing the genocidal purpose of the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Under Europe’s strict Holocaust denial laws, Irving has been banned from entering Austria, New Zealand, and Germany. In 1989, Austrian officials had a warrant out for his arrest but did not face jail time until 2005 when she snuck into Austria for a series of speeches to extremist organizations. He was sentenced to three years in jail but only served 13 months after his appeal in 2006. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the preeminent organization on hate groups, calls him the world’s most prominent Holocaust denier.