Historian Deborah Lipstadt takes on Holocaust denial

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Classroom scene in “Defiance.”
Classroom scene in “Defiance.”

It is not unusual to learn that while audience members may love cinema with Jewish themes, they have little interest in seeing more films about the Shoah.

The plethora of Holocaust movies that have been on the screen have, sadly, turned off a number of cineastes. I often make the point that there is much to learn from each new movie. Films made around the world not only tell us about aspects of the Shoah with which we may not be familiar, but also offer a great deal of information about the country and culture in which it was made. Case in point — several of the superb Holocaust films made the last few years are from Germany and Poland.

Films made recently in this country or the United Kingdom are of special interest. Edward Zwick’s 2008 “Defiance” put forward a Hollywood-style look at resistance, with the good guys — the Bielski brothers, torn between waging a fierce armed fight against the Nazis and protecting a community of Jews hiding in the forests. The next year, Quentin Tarantino provided us with “Inglourious Basterds,” a fairy tale-like story about a platoon of Jewish American soldiers who take on the task of assassinating Hitler. Then there was Simon Curtis’s 2015 “Woman in Gold,” which had an Erin Brockovich feel to it. It was about the crusading lawyer who manages to extract a prized piece of stolen art from the Austrian government for the family of the original Jewish owners. Each one was a “feel good as a Jew” film — but, with the possible exception of the Tarantino film, far from brilliant. Now, Mick Jackson has directed “Denial,” the true story of an academic’s fierce battle to prove that the Holocaust actually happened, and the strategy waged by the legal team that had the task of proving it.

“Denial” has us join Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt in her classroom as she teaches a course about the Shoah. Having us meet Lipstadt provides a wonderful teaching opportunity, and Jackson uses it to launch the film. The Holocaust denier David Irving is in the class, and he challenges the scholar on her facts and asserts that the Shoah never happened.

This is the essence of the film. The question left to producers Gary Foster and Russ Krasnoff was where to go with the story. What kind of film was this to be? Could it possibly replicate the importance of last year’s Best Picture Oscar-winning “Spotlight” in taking on an important issue and setting the record straight on fact, not fiction?

That Holocaust denial has become more widely accepted around the world and had to be refuted was clearly an underlying issue for the filmmakers. The question was what approach to take. David Hare, who had done a brilliant job adapting German author Bernhard Schlink’s novel, “The Reader,” for the screen was hired to write the screenplay. In “The Reader,” a former Auschwitz guard is put on trial in Germany; the film’s best scenes take place not in the courtroom, but in a law school lecture hall. In “Denial,” Hare moves most of the action from Lipstadt’s classroom, the site of the encounter, to a British courtroom. Irving has sued Lipstadt, claiming that she libeled him in a book she wrote. The next question to be answered is whether she will settle with him out of court or defend herself in the United Kingdom. Under British law, the burden of proof lies with the defendant; she is guilty of libel until proven innocent.

Courtroom scene
Courtroom scene

The film has us get to know and admire Lipstadt, who seems always to be jogging. She’s smart and Jewishly identified; she clearly loves her research and life’s work. Lipstadt has lectured in our community several times and is a force to be reckoned with; I can testify to that, having attended graduate school with her. She finds herself defending the truth — that is not a role she had chosen for herself, but it is one for which she is fit.

Rachel Weisz does a superb job playing Lipstadt, and though her Queens accent sometimes is missing, she comes across as likable and admirable. Hinting that she sees herself as a modern-day Deborah, a warrior like her biblical namesake, may be taking it a bit far, but there is little doubt that a legal victory for Irving, a man who claims that the Shoah was a made-up event, would have been a disaster for historicity and the memory of the Six Million.

Some of the more powerful moments in the film come when Lipstadt must choose between allowing survivors to testify or deny them this opportunity in order to win the case in a British court. Her connection and interaction with one such survivor is a highlight of the film. Another momentous scene is when Lipstadt sits at the dinner table with wealthy British Jews who advise her to settle with the denier quietly rather than bring undo attention to England’s Jews. Back to the 1930s and 40s, with Jews hiding under the table?

What could be better than watching some of Britain’s foremost barristers and solicitors putting such an abhorrent man on the witness stand and proving his falsehoods to a far-from-empathic British public? Oh, if such a stage were readily available for today’s purveyors of lies and falsehoods! But does this make great cinema? It could have — we have seen many a great courtroom drama prove it. But “Denial” somehow does not make the mark. Far too much time is spent on legal strategies and not enough on the personalities at the heart of the story.

If you are looking for a film that shows the good guys — us — beating the bad guys — those who hate us — then this is a film for you! I must tell you that I left the screening pleased with the outcome but dissatisfied with what I felt could have been an outstanding motion picture. The film does showcase brilliant performances by Weisz, Timothy Spall as Irving, and Tom Wilkinson as Barrister Richard Rampton. Want to feel good? See it!

The film opens today in theaters throughout the metropolitan area.

Eric Goldman is the author of “The American Jewish Story through Cinema.” He is founder of Ergo Media and adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University.

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