Film » Film Features

Film Spotlight: Denial

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If Keeping Up with the Joneses isn't your speed, there's always Denial, a film which chronicles the trial of a true-life Holocaust denier, opening Friday at select theaters. Can you spell F-U-N?

Here is Rachel Weisz, generously outfitted in ’90s jogging pants and New York City accent, portraying the Emory professor and Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt. She’s sued for libel by British politician David Irving (Timothy Spall) after denigrating him in a published work.

Irving, a Hitler apologist and hardcore bigot who “wants it both ways” — respect as a legitimate historian, adulation from Nazis — brings the case in British court, where the presumption of innocence (a hallmark of the U.S. legal system) does not apply. It’s Lipstadt and her legal team who have to prove that Irving did knowingly misinterpret history as a function of his anti-semitism.

With a few powerful courtroom scenes, courtesy of Tom Wilkinson as Lipstadt’s noble, white-wigged barrister Richard Rampton, and a tense, poignant exchange at Auschwitz, Denial is in many ways an elegy for the Holocaust, but also a treatise on the limits of free speech. One could imagine an equally powerful (and in fact more morally complicated) film that lionized a lawyer for defending Irving, compelled to represent a repellant man based on higher principles of free speech. But Lipstadt and the film argue that denying the truth of the Holocaust is as dangerous a form of speech as yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater, an affront to history and the millions who lost their lives.

The central conflict, though, is much more about the strategy of the legal team than the Holocaust itself. Lipstadt wants to speak, to take a turn on the witness stand to confront her accuser. She also wants Holocaust survivors to testify. But Lipstadt’s team insists that she remain silent, that they focus instead on Irving’s own words and racist track record. This struggle, this quiet sacrifice, makes for solemn, contemplative cinema, but it’s a credit to Weisz and Wilkinson (and, indeed, to Spall) that a movie about legal technicalities can be such an effective forum for discussing the Holocaust. It is the polar opposite of last year’s Son of Saul, and nowhere near as gripping as that film, but is a worthy and sometimes beautiful tribute to the atrocity.

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