‘Denial’ recounts 90’s Holocaust court battle

Rachel Weisz plays Holocaust studies professor, Deborah Lipstadt who faces off with writer David Irving in ‘Denial.’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“Denial” is a film adaption of Deborah Lipstadt’s book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.” In the late 1990s, British writer David Irving sued Jewish-American historian Lipstadt in British court for libel, for calling him a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust.” Unlike in the United States, the British legal system assumes the accused is guilty until proven innocent in libel cases. If she did not defend herself in court, Irving would win by default and that outcome would give Holocaust deniers legal standing. Lipstadt had no choice but to fight.

The film is a well-made, restrained courtroom drama, but what it lacks in cinematic bells-and-whistles it makes up in intelligent storytelling and important subject matter.

Rachel Weisz plays the bold Lipstadt and Timothy Spall is Irving in this serious film from British director Mick Jackson (“L.A. Story,” “Temple Grandin”). Andrew Scott plays Lipstadt’s solicitor Anthony Julius while Tom Wilkinson takes on the role of the flinty barrister Richard Rampton, who makes Lipstadt’s case in court. David Hare (“The Reader,” “The Hours”) wrote the screenplay. 

The drama is a reminder of the truth in the phrase “everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts,” as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said. It also serves as a cautionary reminder of the vulnerability of history to those who would re-write the facts, particularly in an era where the media tends to treat all opinions as equally valid. 

But there are no “two sides” to whether the Shoah happened, as Lipstadt reminds in her book. While the film depicts the measured deliberations of the legal case, it also shows the media frenzy surrounding it, as the case was being tried in both the courthouse and the court of public opinion. At the center of it all is Lipstadt’s personal experience facing down a Holocaust denier.


The film is generally faithful to Lipstadt’s book, even using quotes from it as dialogue. It helps that Lipstadt writes in a very readable, personal style, with her sharp wit coming through, even while laying out exacting historical evidence. 

She is a Jewish history and Holocaust studies professor at Emory University and grew up in Queens, N.Y. in a Modern Orthodox family. 

Irving had written several books on World War II history and Hitler, often putting him in favorable light. While Irving was outside the mainstream of historians and had no degree in history, he received surprising respect among academics for his research. 

The courtroom dialogue comes from the trial transcripts, which helps make the film a much more powerful and unassailable case for truth. 

Lipstadt is someone accustomed to being in charge, yet the nature of the British legal system required her to cede control to her legal team. She wanted to stand up in court and speak directly to the Holocaust denier, and survivors were clamoring to speak as well. But the strategy needed to defeat the denier required a different, counter-intuitive approach. Rather than trying to prove the Shoah happened, they would assail Irving’s research and conclusions. 

This uncomfortable requirement to rely on her team was something Lipstadt discussed as a guest speaker at Washington University’s Hillel Institute in August this year. She talked about her close collaboration with the filmmakers, as well as her experience during the trial.

Weisz’ portrayal captures some of Lipstadt’s feisty personality, strong will and razor-sharp wit. Weisz does not actually look much like Lipstadt but she does a convincing job in transforming her appearance, including Lipstadt’s short, fuzzy red hair and even some of her clothes and scarves from the trial, borrowed from the author. Further, Weisz captures Lipstadt’s likable but assertive manner. 

All the cast is strong, especially Wilkinson as the coldly efficient barrister. Spall is excellent as the obnoxious Irving, who denied that mass murder was committed at Auschwitz. Irving gives the air of an upper-crust British academic but also has a P.T Barnum side, given to publicity-seeking stunts. 

The film depicts one such stunt, when Irving shows up at one of Lipstadt’s lectures, interrupting the Q&A session to offer to pay 1,000 pounds to anyone who could give definitive proof of the Shoah, waving money in the air as he spoke. Lipstadt had steadfastly refused to engage with Holocaust deniers, reasoning that doing so gave the appearance of equal footing with the facts.

Although much of the story takes place in London, it also includes scenes shot on location at Auschwitz. In an particularly moving one, Weisz and Wilkinson visit the site to gather evidence against Irving’s claim that no one was gassed there, based on so-called evidence from Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the bizarre subject of Errol Morris’ documentary “Mr. Death.” 

“Denial” is not a flashy piece of cinema but a quiet, deliberate film that makes a compelling point through the importance of its message. It is also buoyed by fine performances, a polished style and its adherence to the factual. This satisfying film offers first-rate treatment of an important topic, a too-rare thing in modern American filmmaking.