“Now, some people are saying that the result of this trial will threaten free speech. I don’t accept that. I’m not attacking free speech. On the contrary, I’ve been defending it against someone who wanted to abuse it. Freedom of speech means you can say whatever you want. What you can’t do is lie and expect not to be held accountable for it. Not all opinions are equal. Some things happened, just like we say they do. Slavery happened, the Black Death happened. The Earth is round, the ice caps are melting, and Elvis is not alive.“
Mick Jackson’s Denial isn’t a remarkable film by any means. An adaptation of the story of the David Irving trial as depicted in Deborah Lipstadt’s book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (2005), it’s little more than a respectable and passionate re-imagining of its source material. But to try to be anything more may have taken away from the serious subject it deals with, and the film does an admirable job communicating the message.
As someone who’s passionate about freedom of speech, critical thinking, evidence-based research and the in-depth critique we necessarily apply to subjects like history and science, I went into this film well aware of how I’d feel about the themes it dealt with. Freedom of speech is not a license to freely lie, expecting it to be taken seriously as just “a different point of view”. When it comes to publicly denying established facts, without sufficient evidence, we need to be held accountable. Otherwise everyone would be freely making up their own facts based on the ‘evidence’ of their subjective viewpoint.
This is why I always stress the difference between fact and opinion. One we are free to use in debate, the other we are free to form ourselves, but they are not interchangeable subject to our whims. We cannot counter someone who says the Holocaust happened by saying “well, that’s your opinion”. Because it did happen. It’s indisputable. We can debate over the meaning of certain things regarding the fact, but not disregard the fact itself just because it doesn’t line up with how we want to view the world.
So I went in knowing it to be dealing with a source of anxiety for me: people who outright deny what should be undeniable fact. What Denial does is show us the mindset of those who disregard facts in favour of forwarding their own personal agenda – in this case, discredited ‘historian’ David Irving, played here by Timothy Spall.
The film begins with Irving infiltrating a lecture given by Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) not long after the publishing of her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993). We see Irving’s team pretend to be members of the audience so they can ask a provocative question of Lipstadt, introducing Irving’s name to the conversation in a sympathetic manner and presenting him with an opening to interrupt the lecture. He challenges Lipstadt to a “fair” debate on the issue of whether the Holocaust actually happened, which of course she refuses on the basis that it would give legitimacy to his demonstrably false claim. The uncomfortable way in which Irving attempts to manipulate the situation to reflect well on himself is reminiscent of how others who form their own biased versions of reality usually operate. As they cannot rely on clear evidence to back up their claims, they must attempt to devalue, and instil distrust in, factual claims.
Irving proceeds to sue Lipstadt for libel, due to her claims in the aforementioned book that he was a Holocaust denier (amidst certain other unsavoury language she used in reference to him), arguing that her book served to discredit him as a legitimate historian. Determined to proceed to court rather than settle the case under the table – as that, again, would be giving credence to his claim – Lipstadt is shocked to discover how the British legal system works; that the burden of proof lies with the accused rather than the one making the accusation. Thus, she and her legal team (led by solicitor Anthony Julius, played by Andrew Scott) are essentially forced to provide evidence in court that the Holocaust genuinely happened, and that Irving’s claim is therefore without merit.
Subsequently the film becomes a typical courtroom drama, though the subject in question keeps interest high throughout. There is a certain fascination in seeing Irving’s mindset of outright denial play out in front of us. We see, in fact, that Irving has the capacity to be charming, treating the judge with respect and coming across as a relatively normal person. His speaking ability and capacity to argue his points effectively, whether verbally or in writing, show us how his claims may be able to convince some people who put more emphasis on personality over factual evidence.
At one point the film also presents an interesting point of contention, when the judge asks Lipstadt’s legal team whether Irving can really be held accountable for lying if he honestly believes his own claims. Is one still lying if they think, in their own mind, they’re actually being entirely truthful? In the end it seems a rhetorical question, providing we’re basing our beliefs/ opinions on evidence and fact rather than going along with the idea that “we make up our own truth”. But for the specific case in question, it did provide pause for thought.
Ultimately Denial is a well-made film that will particularly resonate with those who feel as strongly about the topic as I do. This was an important legal case in British history, and it therefore deserved a respectable portrayal. Thankfully, it has got one.
8 / 10