History on Trial: The Docudrama

I hope there will be lots of conversation about “Denial,” the riveting new docudrama about eminent historian Deborah Lipstadt’s fight to defend her scholarship against a vicious Holocaust denier.  The libel suit brought against the Emory professor–and her publisher–by David Irving, whom she described as a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Irving brought the suit in England, where in such cases the defendant has to prove her innocence, the opposite of the American system, where in such cases the defendant has to be proven guilty. 

The film, in which Rachel Weisz stars, is based on Lipstadt’s 2005 book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (2005). This screenplay, written by David Hare, may be indicative of a new 21st-century era of Holocaust film tackling a fundamental question we haven’t needed to ask in quite this way until now: How do we know what we know? 

In the trial, for strategic reasons, and also to protect them from abusive bullying by the bigoted plaintiff, the defense kept upset Holocaust survivors from testifying. And, following the unilateral decision of her expert barrister and solicitor, supported by a large team of researchers, Lipstadt was kept off the stand too.

All clear thinkers agreed that it would be an absolute disaster if the case were lost. Some, including leaders of the British Jewish community, urged Lipstadt to settle the case out of court, but she insisted on fighting the charge directly. 

One small and perhaps not so incidental detail about the film: it doesn’t throw in any extraneous romance to sell its story. We don’t learn anything about the relationship status of any of the characters, a tribute to the seriousness and sufficiency of the film’s subject. 

Lipstadt (played wonderfully by Weisz)— is tough and relentless and often funny, like the historian herself—and the film powerfully connects the many themes of hatred spewed by Irving: his racism and sexism on top of his rampant anti-Semitism. 

“Denial” is a film well worth seeing—and discussing.