Does truth even matter anymore? I receive frequent emails from FactCheck.org that looks at the statements made by political candidates and rates their accuracy. It may not come as a surprise that some statements are blatantly false. Is the truth just an annoyance that gets in the way of what we’d like to say and believe? Standing for the truth is the core of Denial, a true story courtroom drama about a professor who is sued by a Holocaust denier for libel.
Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a professor of history at Emory University, has made a name as one who has studied Holocaust denial. In a book she mentions David Irving (Timothy Spall), a British self-taught historian of World War II, as a Holocaust denier and Hitler apologist. He sues her for libel leading to a sensationalized trial in London. Her defense team, led by solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), sets a strategy that troubles Lipstadt—to not put her or any Holocaust survivors on the stand. Rather, they planned to focus on Irving and his racist, anti-Semitic views that had led him to distort history.
While much of the film is the courtroom drama (and all of the courtroom dialogue is taken verbatim from the trial transcripts), it is also the personal story of Dr. Lipstadt through this persecution. (The film is based on her book, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial.) Often we sense her solitude in the midst of all the media frenzy. Even when with her legal team, she is often alone. They have their legal experience and strategy. For them, her defense is all important, but for Lipstadt the truth is what really matters and that is why she is not willing to settle. She wants to make it clear that fact of the Holocaust is not subject the whim of whoever may not want to acknowledge it. She wants the pain of the Holocaust victims to have voice. For the others involved, the truth does matter, but it seems to be secondary to winning.
Irving, on the other hand, is portrayed as a self-aggrandizing egotist. For him, the truth is what he wants it to be. He relishes the acceptance this trial seems to give to him and his ideas. It is exactly that approach which is the target of the legal defense. Rampton, in his cross examination treats him as totally unimportant. He refuses to even look at him. It is not so much that he is worthy of contempt. They want to portray that he is not even worthy of notice because he cares nothing about truth.
The film does, of course, speak to the veracity of the historical truth of the Holocaust. That, however, is only a minor part of why the film is important. It is not so much about whether the Holocaust actually happened. (We are expected to already know the fact about that.) Rather this is about what credence we should give the various lies that people speak in order to gain acceptance. Which brings us back to the current electoral process. Sites such as Factcheck.org and Politifact.com (which will rate some things as “Pants on Fire) try to help us get a handle on the truth, half-truths, and sometimes outright lies that candidates and their proxies tell us. But often, even in debates and interviews, those half-truths, errors, and lies go unchallenged. Denial reminds us that the truth matters and that sometimes we have to stand up and demand that lies and those who tell them must be called what they are.
Photos courtesy of Bleeker Street