New drama sheds light on Holocaust denial case | The Triangle

New drama sheds light on Holocaust denial case

Photo courtesy: Laurie Sparham, Bleeker Street Media
Photo courtesy: Laurie Sparham, Bleeker Street Media

There were no gas chambers or systematic extermination facilities. The Holocaust didn’t really happen. Even if it did, six million Jews weren’t actually killed by the Third Reich. This number is grossly exaggerated to advance the Jewish-Zionist agenda and pull in profits for the state of Israel…

These are actual assertions by people who seek to shed doubt and disseminate misinformation and blatant lies about the most heinous atrocities in human history. We’ve seen the horrors of the Holocaust re-created by Hollywood again and again. Movies like “Schindler’s List” and “Son of Saul” take unflinching looks at the unspeakable crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis during World War II.

What we haven’t seen too often in cinema, however, are the injustices of the Holocaust scrutinized years after the fact. Last year, “Woman in Gold” (starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds) depicted a legal battle waged in the 21st century over a piece of Jewish-owned art stolen by the Germans during WWII.

In other words, what does the passage of time do to our collective historical memory? Does the succession of generations force us to fall prey to Santayana’s warning about repeating the past if we forget it?

That’s the central question of “Denial,” a stranger-than-fiction courtroom drama about the libel suit brought by notable British “historian” David Irving (author of “Hitler’s War”) against Jewish-American historian Deborah Lipstadt in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Irving, a racist, anti-Semitic Holocaust-denying Hitler cheerleader, accused her of defaming his reputation when she branded him as such in her 1993 book “Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.” Here’s the film’s central kicker: the case was brought in the United Kingdom where the burden of proof is on the accused. Instead of laying down and settling, Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz with a perfect rendition of a Queen’s accent) decides to fight for the truth against Irving’s deliberate historical distortion of the facts surrounding Hitler’s Final Solution. It’s a fascinating story with an important outcome that I had never heard of until seeing the movie’s trailer.

The movie jumps around from between the years 1994 and 2000, when the case itself was being prepared for presentation to Justice Charles Gray. Lipstadt’s defense is a crack legal team of lawyers and historians. In particular, the movie focuses on British-Jewish lawyer Anthony Julius (“Sherlock” and “Spectre” villain Andrew Scott working on the side of justice for once) who helped Princess Diana out with her divorce and British libel lawyer Richard Hampton (a gruff but lovable Tom Wilkinson). While somewhat glossed over in the movie, the legal fees for Lipstadt’s  defense cost more than $2 million, donated by multiple benefactors, including Steven Spielberg.

Irving is played by Timothy Spall, who makes it easy to hate a man who spouts enough hate and ridiculousnesss to compete in today’s presidential election. He asserts that more people died in the backseat of Ted Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than at Auschwitz and teaches his infant daughter bigoted poems about “half-breed” children.

Directed by Mick Jackson, a veteran director for HBO features like “Temple Grandin,” the movie never lives up to its glorified TV movie trappings. Despite some of its more lackluster execution, “Denial” is like a well-produced stage production, which is fitting given its screenplay from David Hare, adapted from Lipstadt’s book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.”

Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop it from containing some seriously moving moments such as Lipstadt visiting the haunting remains of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland; the film crew was allowed to film on the actual grounds, which makes it even more poignant.

Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos keeps the camera on the barbed wire perimeter and barracks longer than necessary to impress upon the historical significance of what went on there. Another powerful sequence inside the courtroom shows a debate over the use of the camp’s gas chambers where we get a horrifying glimpse (via reenactment) of dozens of people choking on Zyklon B.

In the end, the film’s messages on freedom of speech, remembering the past and speaking for the dead heavily outweigh its faults. In one instance, Lipstadt attempts to convince a dinner table full of complacent European Jews (who want her to settle the case) to help fund her defense. It brings to mind the old platitude of, “evil flourishes when good men do nothing.” And to take it further, when good men do not act, evil imprints itself on humanity like a string of inked numbers on a forearm.

“Denial” drives that theme home and, in a era when bigotry is on the rise once more, it couldn’t have come at a better time.