A middle-aged white man tells lies: a huge lie, surrounded by many supporting lies. He writes books containing these lies. He goes on television and, like a robot, repeats-repeats-repeats his lies. He amasses rabid followers, who disseminate his lies. When they are confronted with facts that prove they’re lying, they “choose not to believe” them. In “their opinion,” the facts aren’t facts. If they repeat an opinion often enough, they are convinced it becomes fact.
A middle-aged white woman writes a book in which she calls this man a liar. He sues her for libel. She finds herself in a trial far from home, as well as a surreal trial by public opinion.
Amazingly, this is not a movie about Donald Trump; it’s about Holocaust denier David Irving, a Brit. When the American historian and academic Deborah Lipstadt wrote her book about the lawsuit Irving brought against her (History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier); and the screenwriter and acclaimed playwright David Hare adapted it into a script; and the director Mick Jackson and the actors Rachel Weisz (as Lipstadt) and Timothy Spall (as Irving) shot the film – Denial, opening Friday – they could not have anticipated the parallels between their story and the U.S. presidential election. But when they came to the Toronto International Film Festival in September (on 9/11, as it happened), they were well aware of the chord their film strikes.
I did back-to-back interviews, first with Hare and Jackson, then with Lipstadt and Weisz. Lipstadt is a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, though she currently lives in Atlanta and teaches at Emory University; the other three are English, though Weisz now lives in New York. The men sprawl side by side on a sofa, languid and charming. The women, who sit close together in wing chairs, spend most of their time leaning forward, feisty and engaged. All four are thrillingly articulate, though they joke about how much they conform to stereotype: Lipstadt is openly, passionately emotional; the Brits, who clearly feel just as much, keep their emotions tamped down under amused smiles. (When I tell Jackson I’m losing my sense of humour about liars, he says, dryly, “Goodness.”)
“We’re living in an age that the very prescient Adolph Hitler in 1925 called die Grosse Luge, the big lie – a concept he wrote in Mein Kampf, that’s been adopted all over the world,” Jackson says. “You tell a lie so outrageous that it must be true, because no one would have the balls to make it up. Goebbels, his minister of information, took it one step further, toward the Fox News end: Lie big and repeat. So it goes into the echo chamber of cable news until it’s accepted as common parlance, like ‘Crooked Hillary.’”
Hare agrees. “The Internet age has created a false democracy, where people say, ‘That’s my opinion,’ as if all opinions were equal,” he says. “If I choose to say, ‘The moon is made from custard,’ I can find 300 Twitter followers who agree with me, who say, ‘There are two opinions on the moon.’ An awful lot of what you read on the Internet is that kind of stuff.”
Denial hews closely to the truth of what happened to Lipstadt. In 1993, she published a book, Denying the Holocaust. Irving sued her. In British court, it’s the responsibility of the accused to prove she did not libel. Two of England’s greatest legal minds, the solicitor Anthony Julius (played by Andrew Scott) and the barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), defended her. In the film’s courtroom scenes, every word spoken comes from the actual trial transcript. Hare and a researcher pored over all 32 days of the case, and then interviewed the principals.
But here’s the catch: Lipstadt’s team knew that for her to win, they had to make the trial about Irving, not her. She was bursting to testify; they wouldn’t let her. So the title refers to her self-denial as well as Irving’s lies.
“It’s not a film about an individual – it’s a film about teamwork,” Hare says. “Deborah was brought up to believe she’s a special individual. From her childhood on, her mother told her, ‘The moment is going to come when you’re tested.’”
“It’s the image of Boadicea, the warrior queen,” Jackson chimes in. “‘You will be the defender of your people.’ Deborah has to realize the lone warrior won’t work here, that she’s part of a platoon. In order to serve the truth, she has to push aside the idea of herself as the champion.”
In an America where everyone is brought up to believe he or she is special, this is a radical idea. Equally radical: In a typical Hollywood film, a shy heroine is plucked from obscurity and through adversity finds her voice, so that in the final reel she can deliver a ringing speech. Denial turns that on its head.
“That’s what appealed to me,” Hare says. “I think the Hollywood formulas are dead. But nobody’s told Hollywood.” He allows himself a small smile. “The audience is so sophisticated now, they can yell out the Joseph Campbell playbook. That’s the reason we’re all watching television – it subverts the formulas. I’m only interested in movies like this, that go against the grain.”
That was the fun in playing Lipstadt, too, Weisz says. “Deborah tells a story,” she begins, “that her first words were –” “‘Me do it,’” Lipstadt cuts in.
“So for her to surrender to silence was a huge thing,” Weisz continues, laughing. “I don’t see it as an un-showy part. I see a vibrant, vocal, strong-willed woman who makes a sacrifice for the greater good. Yes, I did a few reaction shots. There was a lot to react to.”
Lipstadt and Weisz spent two days getting to know each other around Weisz’s kitchen table. But their most mind-bending days were spent shooting scenes at Auschwitz. “An actor’s job is to suspend disbelief, but we were in a situation where I was suspending disbelief and I wasn’t,” Weisz says. “I was in that place, recreating something that had very much upset Deborah – that lawyers, for good reasons, stood on that sacred ground questioning the facts about it.
“What astounded me, as a studier of humanness,” she continues, “was seeing the mechanized, clinical, completely cold organization of killing. It was an industrialized death factory, in which there wasn’t a minute wasted, nor a piece of human flesh, hair, teeth, gold, eyeglasses, fake limbs. And you can hear the church bells ring.”
Lipstadt is visibly moved. “That’s why we must continue to challenge people who call lies their ‘opinions,’” she says. “The media, academics – we must say, ‘That’s not true.’ People are becoming relativists: ‘I have my truth and you have yours.’ But that is bullshit.”Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: