Denying the Denier: Story of Holocaust Denier's Libel Case Heads to Big Screen

Sixteen years on, American Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt’s defeat in court of Holocaust denier David Irving remains sadly relevant, as the new movie ‘Denial’ shows.

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 Rachel Weisz with Deborah Lipstadt on the set of “Denial”
Rachel Weisz with Deborah Lipstadt on the set of 'Denial.'Credit: Liam Daniel/Bleecker Street

NEW YORK – It’s hard these days to imagine that a film devoid of sex, romance and crashing cars can be compelling to watch, but the new movie “Denial” is nonetheless. That’s because the issue at the heart of this movie, the story of Holocaust denier David Irving’s libel case against American Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt and her British publisher, is dramatic enough. Sixteen years after the trial, it remains sadly relevant.

The movie stars Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Tom Wilkinson as her trial attorney, Richard Rampton. Playwright David Hare penned the screenplay. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 30.

In 1993 Lipstadt published a book “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” which was the first full-length examination of Holocaust denial. In it, she calls Irving a “liar” and “falsifier of history.” Lipstadt wrote that Irving, “familiar with historical evidence, bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda ... he is most facile at taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions.”

Three years later Irving sued Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin Books, for libel, claiming his reputation had been irreparably damaged.

Irving was a largely respected military historian before turning toward Holocaust denial. Apparently enthralled with Hitler, he sought to establish that the Final Solution took place without Hitler’s knowledge, and that the extermination camps did not actually murder millions.

Unlike in the United States, where defendants are presumed innocent, the burden in English jurisprudence is on the defendants to prove that the plaintiff is wrong. Lipstadt’s attorneys had to prove that Irving intentionally distorted facts.

Irving vs. Lipstadt and Penguin Books was tried in the early months of 2000 in a London courtroom while Holocaust survivors, the press and other interested parties filled the galleries above.

And while we know the outcome – Irving was defeated – in Brooklyn, the story of “Denial” continues to resonate.

“We’re in the kind of mode of facts don’t matter and all opinions are equal,” Lipstadt said in an interview. “The Internet gives these people, the alt-right people, a vehicle, a much bigger megaphone. It doesn’t give them the voice but gives them a hearing they didn’t have before. Now all you need is a Twitter account or Facebook page.”

A September 19 New York Times talk featuring Weisz and Lipstadt sold out, with $40 tickets scalped on Ebay for $120, an amused Lipstadt told Haaretz the next day. Some 450 people filled Lincoln Center’s Merkin Concert Hall for the talk as nearly 300,000 more streamed it live on Facebook.

Rachel Weisz alone as Lipstadt in the courtroom during the trial.Credit: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street

Lipstadt’s attorneys for the lawsuit were Anthony Julius, who had represented Princess Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles, and James Libson, both from the firm Mishcon de Reya. Queen’s Counsel Richard Rampton presented the case in the London court.

In an interview Libson told Haaretz, “once an anti-Semite takes on someone like Deborah it’s important to win, and to win well.”

“The issue of Holocaust denial has become more important as time has gone on. Across the world there is relativism and debate about the meaning of experts and history, truth and empiricism. That’s absolutely fertile ground for conspiracy theorists and deniers,” said Libson, who in the film is played by James Lowden.

During the more than three months of the trial, in which she was not permitted by her lawyers to take the stand, Lipstadt faced moments of real worry. “What if we lose?” she asks Rampton in the movie, and in her book about the trial, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.” “Suddenly it’s acceptable to say the Holocaust didn’t happen?”

One of the most challenging things she faced during the trial was staying quiet, Lipstadt told Haaretz. Her lawyers forbade her to speak to the press because they didn’t want to anger the judge and hoped that depriving Irving of the “oxygen” of publicity would lead him to drop the case.

In the movie Tom Wilkinson, playing Rampton, says to Lipstadt, “This case is happening to you, but it’s not about you.”

The red-haired, loquacious Lipstadt said, during the Times Talk, that she started speaking about the trial at the press conference immediately after the verdict, “and I haven’t stopped since. My family says it was an act of God that I stayed quiet [during the trial],” she said to laughter from the audience. “I had a voice and had to keep it quiet, and that was very hard.”

At the Times Talk Weisz, who donned a red wig to play the historian, said she wanted to play Lipstadt because “I felt Deborah was a pretty delicious character to sink my teeth into, a very vivid, colorful character.”

Lipstadt lent Weisz some of the silk scarves she often wears tied around her neck, and provided some of the books from her Atlanta office at Emory University, where she is a professor of history and Jewish studies, to dress the set.

“I was very drawn to Deborah’s character,” said Weisz at the Times Talk. “She says what she thinks, she’s very vocal, she’s very un-British. As a Brit to be playing an American in England, it was like a delicious exercise.”

And, said Weisz, who is a British Jew, “I found the story a very important one.”

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