Monday, June 5, 2023

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Denial’

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Denial is one of those movies that is about what it is about. But its lack of style is not to be mistaken for its lack of substance. It is what it is, a courtroom drama based on an actual London trial in which the verity of the Holocaust is put on trial. But underneath it all, it is about how we as a culture reconcile the horrors.

Mick Jackson’s film dissects the arguments of not just holocaust denialism but the frequent gaslighting tactics of antisemites and racists. Jackson wastes little time getting to the meat of Denial. The film opens with Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) asking her class a simple question, “How do we know the Holocaust happened?”

Watching Denial, I began to realize how little I had thought about the Holocaust. Even more staggering was how little I was ever really taught. The moral depravity of the nazis was more than just the murder of six million Jews. It is the fact that they destroyed evidence of the Holocaust once it became clear they were losing. This bit is crucial. It goes to show that the nazis knew what they were doing was horrendous, and they did it anyway.

The film itself is the adaptation of Lipstadt’s book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.” The case in question, Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd, is a libel lawsuit brought by David Irving (Timothy Spall), a Holocaust denier. But rather than give us a run-of-the-mill courtroom drama, Jackson and his screenwriter David Hare attempt to dismantle the arguments of Holocaust denialism while also tackling the thorny issues of the limits of free speech.

In England, the burden of proof is on the defendant. It is up to Deborah to prove that the Holocaust did happen and that David is lying. Deborah rightly points out to Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), her solicitor, “It’s against natural justice.” 

Denial is an exercise in deconstructing arguments and a brief tutorial for Americans on how the British justice system works. Julius is her solicitor, but he doesn’t argue the case before the court. That role belongs to her barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). Jackson gives us the tour of the process, so we learn at the same time as Deborah does. 

Deborah is horrified by the trial, but not because she regrets what she wrote. She finds Irving offensive, but more importantly, dangerous. For her, it’s about making people understand that his “harmless” historical re-imagining is an act of deception.

But then there’s the notion of arguing that the Holocaust happened in a court of law. “A court of law has to be a lousy place to judge history.” For most people losing a case means paying a fine. But for Deborah, the stakes are higher. If she fails, holocaust denialism will have won a legal victory. 

Jackon may not be making a film rife with style and motifs, but he is making a case for the cost of free speech as well as the cost of lies. “I’m not attacking free speech. On the contrary, I’ve been defending it against someone who wanted to abuse it.” Denial is a film made for the post-truth era. 

The film details how antisemitism, white-nationalism, and other bigoted ideologies play by the rules not to follow them but to test them. To poke at them jovially, and then when someone gets upset, they smile and say, “Oh no, I wasn’t saying that. You misunderstand.” They act polite and speak calmly to not draw attention to the horror and violence of their ideas.

Spall’s Irving is a perfect embodiment of this type of behavior. He plays Irving as a genial man who can’t understand why everyone is so upset. He’s not a drooling fanatic; he’s well-read read and articulates his thoughts in academia’s language.

“Don’t you see what he’s doing? He’s making it acceptable to have two points of view. People are going to see the news and say, ‘Oh, okay, some people think there were gas chambers at Auschwitz, and oh, this is interesting. Some people don’t.'”

In one instance, Rampton reads aloud from Irving’s journal a racist song he has taught his young daughter. Irving sees no problem with it and demands Rampton be the one who proves it’s racist. A tactic we see all too commonly today. The offense does not exist but in your oversensitive and hysterical imagination. 

The key to Denial is Weisz. She is one of the generation’s great talents. Weisz has the happy knack of embodying her character so wholly that we do not see Rachel Weisz when she first appears on the screen. We see Deborah Lipstadt.  

Her performance is immaculate and so well constructed that you can’t catch her acting. Weisz exudes Debora’s righteousness and deep compassion for the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, as well as the contempt for those she meets who don’t wish her to proceed with the case.

Jackson and Hare cleverly layout each argument for denialism before deconstructing it and revealing the flimsy lies that act as counterfeit pillars of truth. The characters discuss the framing of the deniers’ arguments and point out that they only make sense on the surface. A tactic, again, used by podcasters and shock jocks today. 

But do not be fooled into thinking Denial is merely some form of intellectual exercise. Jackson infuses the characters and the film with wit and deep, unyielding emotions. Shot by Harris Zambarloukos, the film has a somber grey tone, giving the film a dour emotional state. But it also emphasizes the grave importance of the matters at hand.

When Rampton and his team go with Deborah to Aushecwitz, Zambarloukos shoots it with solemn reverence. The camera makes sure to show how both Deborah and Richard are affected by this place. Jackson and Zambarloukos take us on a guided tour of the camp, giving us more information as Richard tries to understand denialism.

Hare’s script helps key us into Deborah’s emotional turmoil so we feel her anxiety and outrage. Along with Jackson’s direction, Denial wisely avoids going big and instead creates moments of quiet power. Moments such as when Deborah and her barrister Richard have a sit-down, and she confesses how hard it is for her to sit silently and let someone speak for her.

The scene is compelling and emotional. Weisz and Wilkson are magnificent as they do the most challenging type of acting, acting by sitting. It is a moving scene. One I have failed to watch with a dry eye each time I see the film.

Most art lives in the realm of ambiguity. But Denial lives in the realm of ethical cinema. A place where having a moral stance is not antithetical to having an artistic one. 

By the end of Denial, we understand the Deborah’s question at the beginning of the film. “How do we know the Holocaust happened?” We know because of the Jewish survivors. The evidence is everywhere.

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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