Justice Is Not Denied in “Denial”


By Shelley A. Sackett


When historian Deborah E. Lipstadt walked onto the stage on September 22 for a Q&A after a preview of the film “Denial”, she was asked what it felt like to be portrayed by the Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz. “It was surreal,” she said with a laugh, noting that the most remarkable part was hearing her own Queens accent perfectly mimed by the English film and theater star.


But with that, any light-heartedness faded as discussion turned to her real life role as defendant in a British lawsuit brought by Hitler admirer and “historian” David Irving. After Lipstadt labeled him a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, Irving sued her and her publisher, Penguin books, for libel, claiming her false statements had harmed his reputation.


Her subsequent ten-week legal battle in 2000 to defend herself and establish the “historical truth” that the Holocaust did indeed occur formed the basis of her “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (2005), the book on which playwright David Hare’s script for “Denial” is based.



Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt in the true story, “Denial”.


As Irving knew, in Britain libel laws favor the plaintiff. The defendant must prove that statements the plaintiff considered libelous, or false, are indeed true. In this case, Lipstadt had to prove that the Holocaust really happened, and that, therefore, Irving intentionally lied when he insisted there were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz and that the Nazis had never murdered any Jews.


As if this isn’t complicated (and heart wrenching) enough, Lipstadt and her team had two additional stumbling blocks. The first was a lack of physical evidence. The team had to amass their case despite the facts that the Nazis never allowed photographs of prisoners being gassed in Auschwitz and further covered their tracks by destroying the gas chambers.


The second was defense counsel’s decision not to allow Lipstadt or any Holocaust survivors to testify for fear that Irving, who was acting as his own attorney, would humiliate and exploit them. For Lipstadt, this was worse.


“A trial is not therapy,” Lipstadt’s British solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, known to TV’s “Sherlock” fans as Moriarty), tells her. Furious, she tries to make him understand that it is not their own catharsis the survivors seek. “You think they want to testify for themselves? It’s not for themselves. They want to give voice to the ones who didn’t make it.” Unmoved, Julius replies, “It’s the price you pay for winning.”


The bulk of the film centers on the trial and all the testimony comes directly from the actual trial transcripts. “This was a film about truth and it had to be truthful,” Lipstadt said during the Q&A. Although some of the film’s detailed court procedures may be confusing (and boring to a non-attorney), the exchanges between Irving (Timothy Spall) and the defense’s Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) crackle, due in large part to the stellar acting of both.


Spall, who recently starred in “Mr. Turner”, has a rubber face perfectly suited to playing the duplicitous and self-impressed Irving. One minute, he is all smarmy self-justification, buttering up the judge and showboating for the spectators. The next, he is at his most infuriating, spewing diabolical anti-Semitic racist invectives and then playing the victim, accusing Lipstadt of tarnishing his reputation with a “verbal yellow star”.


The always-terrific Wilkinson brings weight and nuance to a cool-headed performance that hints at the roiling emotion lurking just below the surface. The film’s most satisfying moments are when his Rampton slyly lures Irving in during cross examination, then ferociously pounces, drawing and quartering his squirming prey.


Its most moving scene is during the legal team’s visit to Auschwitz. When Rampton steps on a barbed wire shard on his way to the gas chamber entrance, he suddenly understands the enormity of the atrocity perpetrated by the Nazis. To imagine a barefooted Jew stepping on a piece of barbed wire on his way to his imminent murder is unspeakably unjust — and real.


Given the extraordinary pre-release press “Denial” has engendered, it can hardly be a spoiler to reveal that Lipstadt won her case. The Holocaust scholar, however, hopes the biggest takeaway of the film is not her victory, but a recognition that not all opinions merit defending.


“There are not two sides to every story. The Holocaust happened. Slavery happened. There are some things you cannot debate,” she said. “I will debate you on the facts. I will not debate liars.”


Noting that earlier in the day, the New York Time used “lie” to describe some of the things Donald Trump has said, Lipstadt is worried about what lies ahead. “We are living in a time when lying has become mainstream. The needle has moved so far,” she said. “There is an anti-intellectual, anti-factual attitude which is frightening.”


She paused for a moment and then directed the Q&A session towards the audience. “Where does that put us? As academics and people interested in social justice, what do we do?” she asked.



From Victim to Expert, Jessica Stern Shares Her Story

Jessica Stern attributes her professional fascination with violent perpetrators and her ability to remain calm in dangerous situations to the traumatic experience of being raped at age 15 at her Concord, Mass. home. These qualities are the silver lining borne of a horrendous attack, and they have served her well as a former member of President Clinton’s National Security Council, an expert on terrorists and terrorism, and an author.

Stern’s most recent work — “Denial: A Memoir of Terror” — is an autobiographical account of her 1973 rape at gunpoint by a serial rapist who was never
caught. She is also the author of “Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill,” which features interviews with Christian, Muslim, Jewish and American fringe group extremists. Stein traveled to Pakistan alone, engaging aspiring mujahedin in dialogue in remote madrassas; she interviewed Jewish radicals in West Bank settlements; and she even included conversations with Texan antiabortion militants and followers of Timothy McVeigh.

Stern, now 55 and living in Cambridge, will be a panelist at Boston Bookfest alongside Valerie Plame Wilson, Wes Craven and Mary Louise Kelly. Their topic is “Writing Terror: An Exploration of Fear.”

“I am fascinated by the secret motivations of violent men, and I’m good at ferreting them out,” she wrote in “Denial.” The 2010 work also describes her close relationship with her father and her identity struggles in the wake of trauma that caused undiagnosed and unacknowledged post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Being the child of a refugee and Holocaust survivor, she believes, exacerbated her painful path to self-identity.

Stern responded to questions by phone:

SS: What was your goal in telling your story?

JS: I had no clue that I had PTSD. I thought it was something soldiers got. I had no idea that the symptoms I had of hyper- and hypo-vigilance were symptoms, and not just who I was. When I mentioned this to my father and sister, both said, “Oh, we have that, too.” It allowed them to talk about this and that has helped all three of us and made us closer. My sister had a harder time with my writing this book (she was also raped during the same incident) but it brought us closer in a more authentic way. My father and I had never spoken about the rape or about why he hadn’t cut short his trip to Europe and come home when it happened. Writing the book allowed us to have those conversations. There is less distance between us.

I have received letters from women who were raped by the same guy I was. Some have written, “You saved my life.” (The paperback edition has a section in the back with reprinted letters from readers).

SS: What does your faith mean to you?

JS: I feel completely Jewish, but I wasn’t really raised Jewish. We didn’t celebrate any of the holidays, not even Passover.

I think being the child of a refugee completely determined my choice of career. It feels to me like a very Jewish choice to study violence. I am finally meeting children of refugees, and I feel like I have a lot in common with them. There is a kind of determination, which I associate with Judaism, but it may be the result of being raised by a Holocaust survivor. There is an emphasis on education and on philanthropy. I hope that, in a way, I am giving back and helping others by writing this book.

SS: Did you ever have second thoughts about writing “Denial”?

JS: Not once I committed to it, but it took a long time to get to that stage. My editor is the one who told me, “You should be writing about your rape.” I resisted at first, but I couldn’t resist doing the investigation with the police. I was afraid that my colleagues wouldn’t take me seriously if I wrote this book.

SS: What are you working on now?

JS: I am working on two books; one about other victims of the same rapist, and one about the war criminals from the Yugoslav tribunal. I’m also developing a concept I call “post-traumatic growth.”