Film & Television

Rachel Weisz Defends History in ‘Denial’

The most thrilling movie I’ve seen recently didn’t have special effects or caped crusaders. It’s long and wordy, but fairly hushed. It’s a courtroom drama that’s actually light on drama: no grandiose speeches, no surprising reversals. Instead, the case onscreen relies on patience, painstaking research, and measured logic. I knew how the movie would end and yet I was on the edge of my seat.

The new film Denial is based on Deborah Lipstadt’s acclaimed 2006 book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. A decade earlier, Professor Lipstadt had denounced David Irving, an infamous Hitler apologist, as “One of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.” Irving had argued that the Führer’s “Final Solution” never happened, that it was fabricated by Jews in order to secure international funding for the state of Israel. Dismissive and disrespectful, with a grotesque sense of showmanship, Irving actually insisted that, “More people died in Ted Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.”

In an effort to build his audience, as well as preserve his reputation (he was a self-educated historian and touchy about his credentials), Irving sued for libel. He did so in the U.K., rather than the U.S., so that the burden of proof would lie with Lipstadt. In essence, she and her legal team would have to prove that the Holocaust happened.

If Denial was based on fiction or an original screenplay, this might have led to heartbreaking testimonies from survivors or flashback death camp scenes. Instead, the movie stays true to Lipstadt’s memoir and to the trial’s transcripts. It becomes an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional one. And it is fascinating.

Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz, invariably excellent, plays Lipstadt. She is outspoken, courageous, and smart. She is also deeply invested in the Holocaust, as an historian and as a Jew, and on more than one occasion, her British legal team has to calm her down. (The film’s title has a double meaning: Irving is a Holocaust denier, and Lipstadt must deny her desire to testify against him.) Although the lawsuit horrifies her (far more because of Irving’s truther allegations than any monetary risk), she refuses to settle and “make it all go away.” Yet she finds some (albeit black) humor in the situation, as she upbraids some of London’s Jewish leaders for their unwillingness to help fund her fight.

A significant part of Weisz’s personal history adds dimension to the casting. The actress’s own parents were Holocaust refugees. But the real Lipstadt is quick to point out that it’s Weisz’s superb acting that makes the movie so powerful. “She’s a professional’s professional. I think she would have brought to this the same professional quality even if she hadn’t been the child of two refugees because she’s such a great actress.”

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.