This powerful drama about the legal battle between ultra-right wing UK historian David Irving and US Holocaust studies academic Deborah Lipstadt could hardly have arrived at a more appropriate moment.
That the Holocaust as a topic has a lasting relevance is obvious, but as the film’s title makes clear, it’s not just the historical event so much as the associated phenomenon of denialism – the attempt to erase it from history and excuse the perpetrators – that lies at the heart of the drama.
Add to that the echoes now being felt of the darkest currents of 1930s politics, and the film’s subtext grows even timelier. In this age of “alternative facts”, when the powerful not only lie but try to make us not care about whether the notion of the truth any longer has meaning, and when deniers of anthropomorphic climate change are lavishly funded by billionaires, the film has a deeper and more wide-ranging impact than anyone might have expected only a few years ago.
Irving (played here by Timothy Spall) sued Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) and her publisher Penguin Books for libel in the British courts in 1996 for calling him a liar in her lectures and writing. The film makes clear that the defence case hinged not just on proving Irving an anti-Semite but also a deliberate teller of untruths – a harder thing to demonstrate as it involves intent. As the judge asks at one moment, causing jaws on the defence team to drop, “is it possible that David Irving, as an anti-Semite, genuinely believes what he wrote?”
While on one level this is a traditional courtroom drama, it is a very superior example thanks to a string of excellent performances, Mick Jackson’s sure direction, and a canny script from senior British playwright David Hare that lays out its its drama methodically yet unpredictably. Hare finds conflict not just between the two opposing sides of the case but also between the outgoing, morally outraged American Lipstadt and the British establishment, including the leading members of the Jewish community who want her to settle and her ruthlessly pragmatic legal team who want to keep both her and Holocaust survivors from taking the stand.
Particularly strong here are Andrew Scott (more commonly associated with playing clammy creeps like Moriarty in the BBC Sherlock Holmes series) playing against type as the solicitor who prepares Lipstadt’s case, and the perennially magnificent Tom Wilkinson, who makes the most of the plateful of meaty moments that are handed to him as the chief defence barrister. Of course, all this would be far less effective without a suitably sturdy villain, and a slimmed-down Spall, while far from obvious casting in the role, displays the arrogance and self-possession necessary to make Irving a formidable opponent.
A courtroom drama this may be, but it’s finally worth noting that the most powerful scene of all takes place at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in winter during a visit by the defence team, melted ice dripping from the barbed wire as if it were blood. Here the film accrues some of the silently accusatory outrage of major Holocaust documentaries including Alain Resnais’s 1956 Night and Fog,
and Errol Morris’s 1999 Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A.Leuchter, Jr., about the troublesome Holocaust denialist who later appears in the team’s legal arguments.