I don’t remember the details of the trial David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt as I was only around thirteen at the time. But I do remember it taking place. I remember that a big court case was in session because a man adamantly refused to believe that the Holocaust had happened.
Even at that age, I was shocked. How could someone deny the horrors of the Holocaust, a subject that was an annual part of our curriculum in school? I had no idea how someone could deny such overwhelming evidence for a tragedy like that, or why they would want to.
Fortunately, Deborah Lipstadt, historian and university professor, was already on the case. In fact, she’d been brought into it by the denier himself, David Irving, who sued Deborah and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel in the English High Court. Denial (based on Deborah’s memoirs: History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier) covers this incredible woman’s intense and intricate legal battle. If you think that sounds dry, let me assure you that it is anything but. I’ll explain why.
Rachel Weisz (The Light Between Oceans) portrays the determined and gutsy Deborah Lipstadt, a woman of knowledge and conviction. One of the things that impressed me the most was the selflessness of her fight. She could easily have settled out of court, as several advised her to do and had done before her. She also could have chosen to represent herself in court. Instead, she listened to the advice and judgment of her legal team and made the difficult decision to remain silent while they did the work. Sometimes that’s the harder battle - to be silent and allow others to fight on your behalf. Oof, right in the conscience.
The name “Deborah” holds a special significance for the protagonist of Denial. She tells Anthony Julius at their first meeting that she always knew her name was meant prophetically. Deborah was a biblical prophet and the only female judge of Israel that we know of. She led her nation to victory in battle and saved her nation from destruction.
She was a warrior, a woman who gave everything she had and challenged people to stand up and be who they were meant to be. She had chutzpah, and I personally love that Ms. Lipstadt draws parallels so quickly and jumps at the chance to defend her people by refusing to capitulate and takes this difficult legal battle to a high-profile court.
Andrew Scott (Sherlock) plays notable solicitor Anthony Julius and Tom Wilkinson (Belle) portrays the gruff yet endearing Richard Rampton, Deborah’s barrister. Legal process can be exceedingly cold, but the two of them convey a range of emotion and self-control as they seek to navigate their slippery opponent in the courtroom. Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) plays David Irving, the slippery opponent himself, with an oily sort of ease. He’s often played the bad guy, but this is a different breed entirely. His portrayal of a real-life figure makes him all the more haunting.
One of the most chilling scenes occurs when Rampton and Lipstadt take a research trip to Auschwitz. Rampton takes photographs of thousands of shoes that remain on the site. It took me back to when I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., only a year after this case. I will never forget that trip, but one of the things that hit me hardest was the hallway filled with shoes. Thousands of shoes that still smelled from wear, thrown into a pile after being removed for the last time. That smell put flesh onto history, and it was a pungent, lingering reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust.
The UK release for this film was on January 27 2017, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a tender tribute to the memory of those who suffered and were killed. Not all of us are called to defend what most would call established history in a high court of justice. But we are all responsible for remembering. Deborah used her voice, and in Denial, she continues to inspire others to use theirs.