They couldn’t have planned it better if they’d tried. No doubt the producers of Rachel Weisz’s latest film always intended to release it around today’s Holocaust Memorial Day, given that it tells the story of a court battle against a prominent Holocaust denier. But they couldn’t have known how on point a film about why it’s worth upholding the sanctity of truth would feel. They couldn’t have anticipated, for example, that Denial would be arriving in British cinemas just days after the inauguration of a US president whose grasp of facts seems shaky at best.
Denial stars Weisz as the razor-sharp American academic Deborah Lipstadt who attracted worldwide attention in the late 1990s after a British “historian” called David Irving sued her and her publisher. He brought the lawsuit over claims in her book, Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault On Truth And Memory, that he was a Holocaust denier. And he brought it in the UK, where – unlike in the US – the burden of proof rests on the defence, meaning Lipstadt’s legal team would effectively have to prove the Holocaust happened.
The film dramatises a tiny, but significant, moment when the truth was put on trial – and a small, scrappy group chose to fight back. In Lipstadt’s corner were her lawyers (including Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer, Anthony Julius) and the eminent historian Richard Evans. Theirs was not a glamorous battle with a “Eureka moment”; instead, they spent years pouring over Nazi documents, researching every last detail.
Still, the film manages to be compelling and powerful, with engaging supporting turns from Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott. It’s also moving; I dare you not to feel a lump in your throat as a Holocaust survivor looks on at the court proceedings.
It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Lipstadt ultimately triumphed – this happened in 2000, with Irving labelled “anti-Semitic and racist” by the judge – but the courtroom scenes are still edge-of-your-seat stuff.
Most of all, it’s timely. There’s a reason “post-truth” was crowned word of 2016 – it was a feature of both the Brexit campaign and the presidential race, where facts were frequently drowned out by spurious claims, disingenuity or even barefaced lies. Take, this week, Trump’s team disputing the size of the inauguration crowd, despite contradictory photos. White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway said they were presenting “alternative facts”. Since when were facts up for debate?
Equally, there is a growing pride in rejecting what the experts or the mainstream media say, whether among the Corbynistas – no poll is ever proof of his unpopularity – or those who bought into “fake news” about Hillary Clinton. In this spirit, UKIP donor Arron Banks this week launched the anti-establishment site “Westmonster” – according to its editor, it will offer “not the same news story you’ll read on every other website”.
With ‘alternative facts’ gaining a terrifying credence, Denial is a reminder that we can do more than tweet snarkily from the sidelines and that we don’t just have to accept a situation
Holocaust denial is hardly akin to questioning the slant of a news article. To an extent, that should be encouraged – multiple sources are better than one. But, as Lipstadt said recently of the trial, “there are not two sides to every story”. It's just as applicable now and her commitment to the truth is an inspiration.
In Lipstadt, we have a powerful, relatable example of a woman who could have chosen to walk away, but didn’t. Although, now, she is played by a Hollywood star, Lipstadt never set out to be famous – not outside of academic circles. She was not a politician or an activist, not someone who sought the limelight. Irving sued her, not the other way round.
Yet, when advised to settle, she chose to stand up for what she believed in. Written off as an American upstart in the stuffy British justice system, she was told to ignore a fight. Instead, she went into it head on.
She did so at enormous cost, opening herself up to scrutiny (one shudders to think about how it would have been in the Twitter era). And she took on a weighty burden, for this was a risky fight. Just imagine if she had lost the case and Holocaust denial been ruled legitimate…
I interviewed Lipstadt for a news article some years ago, incredibly nervous as I dialled. Here was this world-class authority on Holocaust affairs – what if I said something foolish or asked a banal question? I shouldn’t have worried; she was kind, forthcoming and incredibly humble. I wouldn’t say she was ordinary but, equally, she is proof that individuals can make a difference.
Lipstadt’s courage makes her an incredible role model for 2017. With “alternative facts” gaining a terrifying credence, Denial is a reminder that we can do more than tweet snarkily from the sidelines and that we don’t just have to accept a situation.
There are plenty of glossier films out now, but few that are as frighteningly relevant. As I left the cinema, I wondered what most of us would do in Lipstadt’s shoes. It’s sobering that we may be about to find out how far we are willing to go to defend the facts.