Denial – Movie Review
Who could have imagined that a defamation suit could make for an interesting movie viewing? Yet, that is exactly what the movie Denial succeeds in achieving. It is a real life courtroom drama inspired from the well-known and much publicized English case of David Irving v Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah Lipstadt (based on Deborah E. Lipstadt’s autobiographical book Denial: Holocaust History on Trial. This high profile case arose out of Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s writings which were published by Penguin Books in which Lipstadt claimed the ‘historian’ David Irving to be a ‘Holocaust denier’ who distorted historical facts merely to advance and legitimize his own anti-Semitic views. This publication gave rise to a case which put a whole historical event on trial. For an English law student, this story has a lot to offer from which they can learn, not only in terms of the substantive law on the tort of defamation but also the English civil justice system. Also, the fact that the real life story is a lesson in history (and that too a very important part of modern world history) makes this autobiographical story quite extraordinary in its own terms.
The movie showcases the manner in which Professor Lipstadt and her lawyers prepared her defense in the libel suit initiated by the historian, David Irving. Professor Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) is a lecturer in Holocaust studies and also the chair of the Holocaust Studies Department at the Emory University whose key research is on discovering facts related to the Holocaust as well as taking to task the ‘Holocaust deniers’. One such Holocaust denier that she comments on in her book is David Irving (played by British actor, Timothy Spall). Following her claims that Irving is a Holocaust denier and not a historian in the true sense, the aggrieved subject of her scathing criticisms files for a libel lawsuit in the English courts. He strategically selects England as the country in which to bring his claim since English libel law puts the burden of proof on the defendant to prove that their defamatory statements are justified on the grounds of being ‘substantially true’. Therefore, Professor Lipstadt has to raise the defense of justification (which has now been reworded as the defense of ‘truth’ under the relatively recent Defamation Act 2013), under which she has to prove that her claims regarding Irving are substantially true which makes her criticisms of the historian, legitimate.
The movie then moves to the Royal Courts of Justice in London and focuses on how the defense decides to defend her case. We are introduced to the other key characters; Anthony Julius, the solicitor who was famous as Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer at the time (played by Andrew Scott) and Richard Rampton QC (Tom Wilkinson), the barrister who is tasked with the unenviable job of defending Professor Lipstadt’s convoluted case. The movie focuses on procedural matters related to the English civil justice system and how the parties can decide to waive a jury trial or how they have to disclose the evidence that they would be using in the court beforehand under the Civil Procedure Rules 1999. The scenes where the defense plans its strategies such as making sure to keep the defendant, Professor Lipstadt, silent throughout the proceedings keep the movie engaging enough and once the courtroom drama starts, there is a lot to hold a legal academic’s as well as a history enthusiast’s interest alive.
Since the defendant has to prove the substantial truth of her defamatory statements against the claimant, the trial turns on establishing whether there was sufficient evidence to prove that the Holocaust did indeed happen so as to make a Holocaust denier’s claim appear to be devoid of any real basis. In bringing forth sufficient evidence to establish that the Holocaust did indeed happen and so any alternative conclusion by anyone claiming to be a ‘historian’ would automatically be baseless, the defense team travels all the way to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland where millions of Jews had been kept in captivity and gassed to death using Zyklon-B chemicals. The trial is then focused on proving that there were remains of cyanide found in the concentration camp which were used to kill the captives in the camp. Experts and historians are then called to discuss evidence regarding the architecture of the Auschwitz concentration camp; whether it was suitable for Zyklon-B to be thrown through gaps and holes in the roof of the camp and were there indeed any such holes to be found on the said roof at all.
In that way, not only is the movie extremely educative in terms of the legal formalities involved in a complex defamation case but also in terms of taking the viewers on a trip where they get to explore the events that took place in one of the worst genocide campaigns known to humankind; the Holocaust. The fact that a genocide of this magnitude took place in modern history, the trauma of which a lot of survivors and their families are yet to recover from, also makes us reflect on the current situation in global affairs where dictatorship and racism seem to be on the rise yet again. We live in a world today where travel bans are being imposed on specific communities, walls are being forcibly built to divide people along the lines of ‘us versus them’, normal civilians’ human rights are constantly being breached due to someone else’s wars in the Middle East as well as other parts of the world, leading to people fleeing from their war torn countries to preserve their last shred of dignity and hope, forcing them to live in refugee camps in extreme weather conditions. All that these people are searching for is a decent living with access to some of the most basic necessities of life. It is during times such as these that a trip down memory lane in history can make us reflect deeply on the state of the world around us and to remind us why it is so important to avoid repeating the same mistakes that the human race made in the previous generations.
Therefore, this is a story which makes you ponder over how ‘history’ is explained, how ‘facts’ are established and whether a legal forum is a suitable place to question history and establish facts, while also reminding us of why xenophobia and racism look and feel so ugly whenever encountered and why they need to be challenged all the time.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which he might be associated.