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Review: The Contemporary Relevance of Denial

THE CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE OF DENIAL

Review by Howard Davis

Directed by Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard and Temple Grandin), from a screenplay by David Hare (Plenty and The Reader) based on Deborah Lipstadt's History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, Denial has all the hallmarks of a riveting courtroom drama. Based on a 1996 British libel case that author David Irving brought against Lipstadt, the movie has been criticized as flat and stagey, but it nonetheless conveys a visceral clarity of vision and sense of overwhelming urgency. At a time when the US President's spokespeople gleefully promote "alternative facts" and claim that "even Hitler didn't use chemical weapons against his own people," it tells its story with commitment and force, and shows just how lengthy and labyrinthine the process of legally unpicking such lies can become. As if to justify its contemporary relevance, the movie has already been attacked by a new generation of Holocaust deniers on YouTube, Reddit, and Twitter and Irving himself has gloated over the way alt-right fascists are threatening to make his poisonous assertions once again acceptable.

In a recent Observor interview, Dr Nicholas Terry, a history lecturer at Exeter University, estimates that there are now thousands of “low-commitment” deniers online. Rather than recruiting from established far-right forums, they are attracting followers attracted by ridiculous conspiracy theories such as those surrounding the Kennedy assassinations, the moon landing, 9/11, and Sandy Hook. “In one sense, the internet means Holocaust deniers have got a lot of competition,” Terry said. “On the other, in this more free-form world, deniers have been able to attract a certain minority from the world of conspiracy theories. There’s a sense of disorientation taking place when it comes to where people are getting their news from. This kind of free-for-all on the internet creates a milieu that has seen people who would normally identify along the left of the political spectrum gravitate towards ideas that are more at home on the far right.”


Dylann Roof Flies the Flag

Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old with a pudding bowl haircut who adopted the user name "LilAryan" and was sentenced to death for gunning down nine black churchgoers in Charleston, North Carolina, had no specific political affiliation. Although he has an IQ of 141, he was not well educated and sat in a room for five years with little human contact, totally absorbed by the Internet, which seduced him with white supremacist fables of the "final race conflict" and the "war of all against all" - ideas that are given voice on websites like Stormfront, White Information Network, Occidental Dissent, American Renaissance, Traditionalist Youth Network, and League of the South. A controversy recently erupted when it was revealed Google’s algorithms were recommending antisemitic, white nationalist, and Holocaust denier websites for searches of the question: “Did the Holocaust happen?" Terry, who has monitored Holocaust denial online for ten years, has been personally trolled online by readers of such websites. He founded the anti-denial blog, Holocaust Controversies, to debunk their claims and says that many who now claim the Holocaust never happened are less intellectual than the earlier generation of deniers, resulting in what he terms a “Twitterification” of denial.

Several of the new generation of deniers have become notorious online. After amassing tens of thousands of followers, Eva Lion, an extreme right Canadian nationalist, was banned from YouTube. Reality TV-star Tila Tequila was thrown off Celebrity Big Brother after posting messages defending Hitler, as well as antisemitic and white nationalist comments. According to Terry, the attraction of Holocaust denial has coincided with an upsurge in antisemitism on the internet. Many of those drawn to such beliefs, he suggests, are vulnerable to lies being peddled as truth - “They are people who have reached their 40s or 50s and have embraced the internet as it has grown and new platforms have come along. They have moved away from quality newspaper-reading mentality; maybe they’re professionals, some may have degrees, but they are not skilled in assessing sources in history. When you interact with them, you realise that they have no clue as to how we know anything about the past, about how history works, what information is available. They are willing to go along with certain ideas that are summarised for them and simplified in web articles or videos. Lipstadt said that arguing with a denier was like trying to nail jelly to a wall. I would say it’s now like trying to nail smoke to a wall. There’s almost no substance.”

Lipstadt, an academic historian who specializes in Jewish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, was astonished to discover that she was expected to debate on equal terms with Irving, after he sued her for libel in the British courts, which favour the plaintiff. She hired Anthony Julius, the British solicitor famous for representing Lady Diana in her divorce case (with a framed and signed clipping in his office to prove it), who informed her that under English libel law, the burden of proof lies with the accused. Absurdly, it then became incumbent upon his legal team to prove that the Holocaust did in fact happen.

Howard Shore's swelling, emotional score introduces Lipstadt as she gives an impassioned lecture and is interrupted by Irving (portrayed with oleaginous complacency by Timothy Spall), whom she had explicitly labelled a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust. When he challenges her to debate whether the Holocaust ever happened, she refuses, saying “I won’t debate fact." Cut to the Old Bailey two years later, where Irving is suing her for libel on the grounds that her book has ruined his once well-regarded career as a military historian. Julius implements a shrewd legal strategy that involves the case being heard in front of a judge, with no jury, in order to minimise Irving’s theatrical posturing. Julius asks Irving in the presence of the judge if he is agreeable to this, on the grounds that a jury of laypersons would be unable to comprehend the case’s complex technicalities. Irving, who chose to represent himself, is fatally ginned by this appeal to his intellectual and social vanity.

Rachel Weisz, wearing an orange mop of a wig, brings a prickly energy to her role as the academic who finds herself in the unaccustomed and uncomfortable position of having to let her legal team fight on her behalf. It is an unconventional dynamic for a courtroom drama, since they refuse to call her as a witness and the protagonist thus remains muffled throughout key scenes. But Hare’s measured screenplay makes a virtue of this deficiency by opening up the narrative arc with several other compelling scenes, including one in which Lipstadt is pressured to settle the case to avoid giving Irving a platform to spout his bilious and bigoted vitriol. Another involves a tattooed death camp survivor who pleads for the chance of bearing witness, while a third, in which Lipstadt and her lawyers visit Auschwitz, is sensitively handled and undeniably moving. Throughout the movie, Hare establishes clear parallels Irving's deceit and the outright lies and stubborn denials of truth upon which Donald Trump relied during his 2016 presidential election campaign.

Much of the movie comes across as a standard legal drama with broad stakes and narrow room for nuance, since all the dialogue for the courtroom scenes is taken verbatim from the trial records. Hare makes Lipstadt's character little more than an impassioned mouthpiece with no internal life, and Weisz is forced to rely on a broad Queens accent to define and humanise her. The rest of the cast are more impressive (especially Tom Wilkinson as the boozy, Gitanes-smoking barrister Richard Rampton and Scott as the driven, tight-lipped Julius), while Haris Zambarloukos' cinematography keeps the action unobtrusively underlit. Jackson's somewhat stolid and unimaginative direction turns what might have been a rousing and topical piece of Oscar bait into what more often feels like a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. Although the film addresses significant issues in a way that may not always be subtle, it nonetheless remains entirely timely and relevant by underlining the importance of truth and accuracy as indispensable historical principles in the pursuit of justice.

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