By BERNIE BELLAN Originally slated to open in Winnipeg on October 14, we are now informed that there are no plans to show "Denial" in Winnipeg theatres for the foreseeable future. We're not quite sure what happened that might have led to the cancellation of plans to show "Denial" here. We are attempting to find that out.
“Denial” is a docudrama that tells the story how Jewish American academic Deborah Lipstadt had to fend off a libel suit launched by notorious Holocaust denier, David Irving,In 1993, Lipstadt wrote a book titled Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. In that book, Lipstadt wrote the following about British historian David Irving: “Irving is one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda. A man who is convinced that Britain's great decline was accelerated by its decision to go to war with Germany, he is most facile at taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions. A review of his recent book, Churchill's War, which appeared in New York Review of Books, accurately analyzed his practice of applying a double standard of evidence. He demands ‘absolute documentary proof’ when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies. This is an accurate description not only of Irving's tactics, but of those of deniers in general.”
In 1996, Irving launched a libel suit against Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books. Because the rules for proving defamation in England are different than in America (In England, the onus is on the defendant to prove that what he or she wrote was true, whereas in America the onus is on the plaintiff to prove that what the defendant wrote was untrue.), Irving’s decision to file his lawsuit in England proved to be far more troublesome for Lipstadt than had Irving filed his suit in the United States.
That lawsuit – and the trial that subsequently began in 1996, and which lasted until 2000, forms the basis for a new movie titled “Denial”, starring Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt. The movie takes great pains to present the trial in as accurate a form as possible. Some reviewers have complained that, as a result, the action is not quite as electrifying as it might have been had the film been more like a typical Hollywood courtroom drama. Yet, in its quite realistic depiction of events as they truly happened, viewers of this film should walk away with a better understanding just how traumatic this trial was for Deborah Lipstadt – and how uncertain the final outcome was.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Deborah Lipstadt. Although there are many questions that one might ask of such a famed academic, I wanted to confine my questions to ones stemming from the film itself:
JP&N: The lawsuit was filed in 1996, but the trial didn't begin until 2000. I’m wondering: What was your state of mind that whole time? Were you under constant duress?
Lipstadt: In the beginning there was a lot of duress till the legal team fell into place. Once that happened I felt much calmer. Then things got quiet for a while and we thought it had sort of gone away, but then they resurfaced about ’97 and by late ’97 we knew our attempts to scare him (Irving) off and to get him to drop the suit were not going to work. So, I was under a lot of duress, but having such good lawyers in there was very reassuring.
JP&N: The lawyer who was your solicitor (Anthony Julius) was Jewish, yet the film doesn't mention that.
Lipstadt: He’s a very serious Jew. David Hare (the film’s screenwriter) is well aware of that. I think David thought it was irrelevant.
JP&N: You had a meeting with some of the leading doyens of London’s Jewish community. That was a very icy meeting because they were encouraging you to settle. Did the obvious hostility between you and those London Jews get resolved in the end?
Lipstadt: Obviously, I didn’t settle and the British Jewish community came through in the end and did support me. Now they’re very proud of me and what I did.
They were frightened that this was going to result in David Irving getting lots of attention and David Irving winning, even though he might lose. Obviously, they were wrong and we went ahead anyway. Thank God it all worked out in the end.
JP&N: I thought it was a little bit harsh. They were made to seem a very snotty group.
Lipstadt: It was exactly as it happened.
JP&N: How familiar were you with David Irving’s writings before you wrote your book in 1993?
Lipstadt: I was familiar. I knew he had become a denier. I had read Hitler’s War. I read both versions of Hitler’s War – the one in which there is a Holocaust (published in 1977) and the one in which the Holocaust suddenly disappears (published in 1990), so I was quite familiar. I was nowhere near as familiar as I would eventually become.
JP&N: The way Rachel Weisz played you – you looked physically frightened the first time you saw David Irving in person (when Irving disrupted a lecture she was giving to students).
Lipstadt: She (Weisz) called me the morning she was going to film that and she said to me: “Deborah, what were you feeling?”
I said to her, I was feeling like a deer in the headlights because I was unprepared, I didn’t want to get into a debate with him. I knew that students were thinking, by my not answering him, that maybe he had a point.
JP&N: But physically, David Irving is a much bigger man than the actor who portrayed him (Timothy Spall). He is physically intimidating. The fellow who portrayed him looks more like a weasel.
Lipstadt: Well, he looked pretty evil, but I think you’re right. David Irving is 6’4”. He’s a big guy – a brawny guy. And you know the first time I heard that Timothy Spall was going to play him – and Timothy Spall had just lost 100 pounds – I thought: “Omigod, how’s he going to do it?” but you know, the magic of great acting – as I watch Timothy Spall, he became taller and bigger in my eyes - his depiction of Irving was so good.
JP&N: The references to Irving and Zundel will have a special resonance for Canadian audiences.
JP&N: I was reading about Irving. He came to Canada so many times. Do you have any comment about the Canadian system that let him in so many times?
Lipstadt: It’s the same with the American system. Each time he would come – unless there was a riot against Jews, a riot against black people, then we could say he was an inciter. Until he does that, that’s one of the prices we pay for democracy.
JP&N: Years ago, I read QB VII (the book, written by Leon Uris, based on his own experience of being sued for libel in a British court), then saw the TV dramatization (starring Ben Gazarra and Anthony Hopkins). In so many ways, QB VII foreshadowed your own experience. I don’t suppose it played any part in your thinking.
Lipstadt: You’re absolutely right. I was very aware of QB VII. I reread QB VII, and then there’s a scholarly book on the trial called Auschwitz in England, which I read. I talk about that in my book (Denial – Holocaust History on Trial). First of all, in QB VII, the publisher drops the case because he couldn’t fight it and Uris was left on his own, and I was afraid of that too.
Number two, in QB VII there was a jury. You don’t know what you’re going to get with a jury, also ours was a very complicated case to present to a jury. We could have presented it to a jury, but it would have been much more complicated, much more expensive, so that’s why we wanted a bench trial with a judge.
Finally, I remember the ending of QB VII.
JP&N: He (the plaintiff who sued Leon Uris) gets a penny farthing.
Lipstadt: That’s right – the lowest coin in the realm. But the night before the trial began, I went over to QB VII just to see the courthouse.