Rachel Weisz stands with the real Deborah E. Lipstadt on the set of ‘Denial.’ (Photo credit: Liam Daniel)
An American professor finds herself the defendant in a high-profile British libel trial that would impact the way the history of the Holocaust is told in Denial, a taut courtroom drama based on one of the most significant international legal cases in recent memory.
After historian Deborah Lipstadt’s (Rachel Weisz) book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory is published in the U.K., she is shocked to learn that British author David Irving (Timothy Spall), a prolific writer of texts on World War II, is suing her for libel. Even more surprising to the American academic, under U.K. libel laws she is presumed guilty unless she can prove herself innocent. Lipstadt finds herself in the position of not only defending herself, but establishing beyond a doubt that the Holocaust took place. Passionate, fiery and independent, Lipstadt refuses to settle the case and demands her day in court. With the cards solidly stacked against her, Lipstadt’s British legal team, led by solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), presents her with a confounding strategy: neither she nor any Holocaust survivors will be called to the stand.
Lipstadt was closely involved with the making of the film from the time her book was first optioned, providing the filmmakers with access to her life and insights into her experience. “I spent two days with Rachel Weisz and we talked afterwards on the phone,” she recalls. “I’d never met David Hare, but I knew his work. I’d seen The Reader and The Hours. David spent two or three days in Atlanta, meeting me, shadowing me, coming to my classes, even walking around my home. Then he shared some of the script and I offered comments.”
When the crucial courtroom scenes were filmed in London, Lipstadt visited the set, looking on as her own past unfolded on a sound stage. It was a vivid reminder of how isolated she felt when she arrived in London for the trial. Her A-list legal team had devised a defense strategy that shocked her — she would not testify in court, nor would they call Holocaust survivors to testify.
“We were, as they say, divided by a common language,” she says. “Lawyers talk in shorthand. I felt like a deer in headlights, not because of Irving, but because of the situation. I was in a foreign country, in a foreign arena.”
Lipstadt was unfamiliar with Britain’s two-tiered legal system and the strict division of labor between barristers and solicitors. Solicitors, like Anthony Julius, formulate strategy, undertake negotiations and draft legal documents. While barristers, like Richard Rampton, provide specialized legal advice and represent individuals and organizations in court.
In addition, Lipstadt was shocked to learn, the burden of proof in a British libel case lies with the defendant. The basic American legal tenet of “innocent until proven guilty” is reversed. The historian agrees with Hare’s description of her as “a fish out of water” during the preparation and the trial. “It’s not how I think of myself,” she says. “But it’s not untrue. For the sake of a dramatic arc, David emphasized my relationship with the lawyers. I had to learn to trust those lawyers, keep quiet and have faith in the process.”
Although she initially doubted her legal team’s strategy, she soon learned they had her best interests at heart. “Anthony offered to do this pro bono because Irving needed to be fought. He was willing to fight as if it were the biggest commercial case to ever come across his desk. He’d already represented Princess Diana against the House of Windsor in her divorce and settled that. Now he talks about this as one of his most important cases.”
The trial took place almost 20 years ago, so reliving it on a film set had a surreal quality for Lipstadt. “Some moments approximate the truth almost exactly. I also worked closely with Rachel, who is unbelievable — such a professional! I’m blown away by her. But still there’s something disorienting about it all. She’s even wearing some of my clothes — including scarves that belong to me. The costume department looked at some pictures of me from that time, and I told them I still had some of those clothes. Rachel looks different than me, but I do love that they tried to approximate the hair to a certain extent.”
Lipstadt calls the trial “a defining moment” in her life. “It didn’t change me or what I had to say. It changed how people listen to me. It gave me a hearing I hadn’t had before. Suddenly what I had to say had more clout, more gravitas because I’d successfully faced down David Irving.”
At the time, she was advised by many not to fight the charges. “I was told by some academics that I was wasting my time,” Lipstadt recalls. “Some of the leaders of the British Jewish community felt that whatever happened, he’d win. But if I hadn’t fought, then I would have surely lost. It would have become illegal to call the world’s leading Holocaust denier what he is. That would have been a terrible thing that legitimized all Holocaust deniers. In the end, all those people who had said I shouldn’t have fought came around.”
In retrospect, Lipstadt says, the point of the trial was not to crush David Irving, but to expose a destructive lie that he and others like him were perpetrating. “This trial has importance over and above and beyond itself. In an age of relativism, kids grow up thinking, ‘it must be true, I saw it on the Internet.’ But not everything can be true. There are not two sides to every issue. My students often believe everybody has a right to their opinion, but facts are facts. Historians can debate how the Holocaust took place, but the fact is, the Holocaust happened.”
The opportunity to play someone like Deborah on film was irresistible to Weisz, who is known for taking on a wide range of challenging roles. “It’s a very meaty, interesting part,” she says. “Deborah’s a wonderful character. We spent time together in New York before filming started. Her books are full of wonderful information, but it was also important to get a feel for who she is. She’s very colorful. She is who she is and she didn’t come to London to adapt to the culture. I found her very outspoken and strong-willed and direct, as well as a lot of fun to spend time with.”
Lipstadt answered any and all questions Weisz posed, which the actress found hugely helpful. “She’s quite brilliant and very instructive,” says Weisz. “Not only is Deborah a teacher, she’s a marvelous raconteur, so it’s not hard for her to tell stories about herself. I didn’t know anything about Holocaust denial. But I was interested in knowing how she can teach such an emotional subject. How does she remain unemotional while teaching about something that’s difficult to stomach? Because she is a historian, she is able to keep herself at a remove.”
Weisz, who can next be seen in the upcoming off Broadway revival of “Plenty,” also written by David Hare, says Lipstadt provided her with insight into the culture shock she experienced when she arrived in London for the trial. “Deborah was very intimidated at first by the Brits, all those Oxbridge people on her legal team,” the actress explains, using a British phrase that combines the names of England’s elite universities Oxford and Cambridge.
Lipstadt believes the film provides an opportunity for her to take her life’s work another step forward. “I’d like people to understand that the Holocaust is the best documented genocide in the world. There is no denying it. You can debate aspects of it – why it happened, how it happened, but not the fact that it happened. It is incontrovertible fact. It can’t be debated. And that’s not being closed-minded, it’s acknowledging the truth.”
About Deborah E. Lipstadt
Dr. Deborah E. Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. Her fifth book, Holocaust: An American Understanding has just been published by Rutgers’s University Press. Her previous book, The Eichmann Trial, published Schocken/Nextbook Series in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial, was called by Publisher’s Weekly, “a penetrating and authoritative dissection of a landmark case and its after effects.” In its review of The Eichmann Trial, the New York Times Book Review described Lipstadt as having “done a great service by… recovering the event as a gripping legal drama, as well as a hinge moment in Israel’s history and in the world’s delayed awakening to the magnitude of the Holocaust.” The Wall Street Journal described the book as “a thoughtfully researched and clearly written account of the courtroom proceedings and of the debates spurred by the trial.”
Her book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2006), which has been reissued as Denial: Holocaust History on Trial (Ecco, 2016), is the story of her libel trial in London against David Irving who sued her for calling him a Holocaust denier and right wing extremist. The Daily Telegraph (London) described David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt as having “done for the new century what the Nuremberg tribunals or the Eichmann trial did for earlier generations.” The Times (London) described it as “history has had its day in court and scored a crushing victory.”
The judge found David Irving to be a Holocaust denier, a falsifier of history, a racist, and anti-Semite. According to the New York Times, the trial “put an end to the pretense that Mr. Irving is anything but a self-promoting apologist for Hitler.” In July 2001 the Court of Appeal resoundingly rejected Irving’s appeal of the judgment against him. Denial is based on the libel suit Irving brought against her as a result of her comments about him in her book Denying The Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Free Press/Macmillan, 1993). It was the first full-length study of those who attempt to deny the Holocaust.
She has also published Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust (Free Press, 1986) which surveys what the American press wrote about the persecution of the Jews in the years 1933-1945.
At Emory she directs the website known as HDOT [Holocaust Denial on Trial / hdot.org], which contains a complete archive of the proceedings of Irving v. Penguin UK and Deborah Lipstadt. It also provides answers to frequent claims made by deniers. Portions of the site are translated into Arabic, Farsi, Russian, and Turkish. The site is frequently accessed in cities throughout Iran. At Emory, Lipstadt has won the Emory Williams Teaching Award. She was selected for the award by alumni as the teacher who had most influenced them.
Lipstadt was an historical consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and helped design the section of the Museum dedicated to the American Response to the Holocaust. On April 11, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the start of the Eichmann Trial, Dr. Lipstadt gave a public address at the State Department on the impact of the trial.
She has held and currently holds a Presidential appointment to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council (from Presidents Clinton and Obama) and was asked by President George W. Bush to represent the White House at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
At the US Holocaust Museum Lipstadt chairs the Committee on Anti-Semitism and State Sponsored Holocaust Denial.
She is currently writing a book, The Anti-Semitic Delusion: Letters to a Student which will be published in 2017.
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