Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 50 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 8; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
Director Mick Jackson and scriptwriter David Hare provide still another twist on the Holocaust in their film based on Deborah Lipstadt’s book of the same name. After watching so many Holocaust films, such as Steven Spielberg’s unforgettable Schindler’s List, it might be shocking to learn that there are so many people denying that it ever took place. One of these is David Irving (Timothy Spall), a would-be British historian who denies that the tragedy really happened and supports the present day Neo-Nazis who claim the story was made up by Jews who want to dominate the world.
When in 2000 Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt delivers a public speech at Atlanta’s Emory University where she teaches Holocaust history, Irving pops up in the audience, demanding that she debate him. Regarding his claims as preposterous, she refuses. Soon she is informed that he is suing her for defamation of character, not in America, but in Great Britain. She decides to accept the challenge. And thus, when she lands in England and meets with the lawyers, the film takes on the trappings of a fish out of water tale. They inform her that unlike in America, here the defendant in a defamation of character case is presumed guilty, and thus must disprove the truth of their charges. Also, the lawyer she first meets Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), famous as Princess Diana’s lawyer in her divorce proceedings against Prince Charles, after impressing her, informs her that he will not be speaking for her in court. He is a solicitor, the lawyer who does the important groundwork for a case, but it is barristers who argue a case in court. It will be the Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) who will appear on her behalf. She is further unsettled when the pair tell her that they do not plan to call her to testify. Nor will they call for an actual Holocaust survivor. They overcome her misgivings (well, almost) by assuring her their case is not about her. It is about history, the Holocaust itself.
Their first goal is to get Irving, who has decided to be his own barrister in court, to agree to a judge rather than a jury for deciding the case. Their strategy is that it is better to have a learned judge to be in charge, rather than a jury made up of ordinary folk who might be more easily swayed by Irving’s emotional rhetoric.
After getting him to agree, they travel to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland. Filmed with almost no musical accompaniment, this is one of the most dramatic segments of a very dramatic court room film. Deborah and he others await outside the barbed-wire fence for Rampton to meet them. Their displeasure at his seeming tardiness disappears when they see him rounding the corner. He has been pacing out the circumference of the enormous death camp so that he can gain a feeling of the immensity of the tragedy that took place within its confines. The camera shows that most of the barracks are still standing, but that the extermination building where the gas chambers were located is now a charred mess, its roof having caved in, burying the cellar where the mass executions had taken place. With their guide telling them what had transpired there, they step down into the shallow pit, now standing upon the remains of the roof. Rampton cries out in pain, lifting his foot to discover that he has stepped upon one of the barbs from the wire that had been installed on the roof. We will see that token of hatred and death again during the trial.
The two-year proceedings offer its own brand of drama, with Deborah feeling helpless by not being able to testify on her own behalf. A member of the courtroom audience who approached Deborah in between sessions provides several brief, memorable moments. Upon their first meeting she pulls up her sleeve to reveal the tell-tale tattooed numbers on her wrist. She urges Deborah to try to get the lawyers to call survivors to witness what they experienced. Like the American at first, she cannot understand how someone who had lived through the horrific event could be excluded from the proceedings. This adds to Deborah’s stresss.
How Rampton conducts the case, meeting Irving’s multitude of objections to the veracity of the visual evidence presented is riveting viewing. The film raises the question of how can we believe the veracity of history. How can we prove to a skeptic that anything in the past happened as the history books claim? I am reminded that in the 19th century rationalists questioned the veracity of the Biblical stories, labeling them as just myths and legends with no basis in history. The very existence of Abraham, Moses, and of Jesus as historical figures were denied. It took a long period of careful archaeological study of ruins and of ancient documents to demonstrate that the details of the stories were historically accurate. This did not prove the historicity of the characters, but it did give credence to the stories themselves. In the final analysis, of course, faith is part of our acceptance—faith in the veracity of the persons telling the stories, of the Bible and, in the case of this film, of the Holocaust. Also, as in Irving’s case, the initial bias of the denier must be considered. Can we accept a person as an historian who from the very beginning sides with those who hate and despise Jews? This is another good film for a group to watch and discuss some issues basic to the way in which we interpret the world and its supposed facts.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.