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Culture

‘What the **** Just Happened?’

That’s the exasperated question Rachel Weisz, playing historian Deborah Lipstadt, asks her lawyer when David Irving appears to be getting away with an extravagant lie in his court testimony in the new movie Denial. I think many of us, this year, know exactly how she feels.

I have been an admirer of Lipstadt’s work for many years, so I expected I would like the film; but I was surprised at how moving it was. It tells the story of how Holocaust-denying British historian David Irving sued American historian Lipstadt for calling him out for his untruths. This could have amounted to an after-school-special exercise in moralism, but the presentation of the Lipstadt character helps immensely: Weisz plays her as headstrong and emotional, someone who only very gradually comes to accept the strategic wisdom of her lawyers. This prevents a figurative halo from appearing over her head in the film – she’s One of the Good Guys, yes, but she has normal feelings, like the rest of us, and is thus easier to relate to.

Timothy Spall exudes charm and intelligence as Irving, a worthy courtroom antagonist for Lipstadt’s representative, equally well played by Tom Wilkinson. Andrew Scott deserves special credit for his performance as Anthony Julius, the head of Lipstadt’s legal team: Rarely have I seen a better screen depiction of icy brilliance.

The Irving–​Lipstadt trial was a free-speech case. But it was Irving who brought the suit: What was on trial was not the right of the Holocaust deniers to deny the Holocaust – but the right of truth-tellers to assert that Holocaust denial is a lie.

Yes, the good guys sometimes win. In this case, the victory came in court. But the film’s most striking images are of Auschwitz – as a totally peaceful place shrouded in a blanket of mist. There are no screams, no tears; the worst mankind can do has left barely a trace behind. The only existence these crimes have now is in the accounts of people who tell the truth. The demagogues who deny the truth must not be silenced; they must be resisted. This film tells a powerful story in a skillful and impressive manner. Strongly recommended , and kudos to all involved.

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