History on Trial: Mick Jackson’s ‘Denial’ chronicles the case of a Holocaust denier who sued for libel

Movies Features

As sure as leaves fall, fall itself delivers refreshing relief from summer’s heat and, to demanding filmgoers, relief from summer’s deluge of overheated event pictures. This latter cinematic climate change comes by virtue of high-quality, smart dramas that will win kudos, discriminating audiences and awards attention. Such is British-born, L.A. area-based veteran filmmaker Mick Jackson’s Denial, which Bleecker Street brings to select theatres on Sept. 30 following considerable Toronto awards buzz.

In this real-life London court drama of 2000 and its close-up look at the way truth and justice can unfold in a “culture of lies,” as Jackson puts it, Emory University-based Jewish studies historian/professor/author Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) endures a libel suit initiated by infamous Holocaust denier and anti-Semite David Irving. Due to an oddity in British libel law, the burden of proof is not on the offense but on the accused—presumed guilty at the get-go.

Weisz, an Oscar-winner for The Constant Gardener, shares top billing with several of Britain’s other acclaimed actors: Oscar-nominated Tom Wilkinson plays Lipstadt’s barrister Richard Rampton, the country’s preeminent libel lawyer of the era and known for his extensive trial preparations, and Timothy Spall, multiple award winner and nominee for many films (most notably, Mr. Turner), as Irving. And Andrew Scott as Lipstadt’s young solicitor Anthony Julius, the mastermind behind the defense strategy, will turn heads and rolodexes. In his hands, Julius, who previously was Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer, comes across as the smoothest, coolest Oxbridgian legal whiz to hit screens in a long time.

Director Jackson himself is a multi-award winner who began his career in documentaries, went on to direct a number of theatrical features (with the blockbuster The Bodyguard his best-known) and TV films, docs and mini-series, including HBO’s acclaimed “Temple Grandin,” for which he won an Emmy. He directed other shows for HBO, the BBC, Lifetime, etc., several of which earned him BAFTA TV awards.

The illustrious team was blessed with a whip-smart script by Oscar and Tony-nominated and BAFTA-winning writer and playwright David Hare, who adapted Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. It was one of her previous books, Denying the Holocaust, in which she referred to Irving as a Holocaust denier, which triggered his defamation lawsuit and the 32-day trial.

Lipstadt was one of his stauncher critics, a fact depicted early in the film when Irving shows up unannounced in the mid-1990s in Atlanta where Emory University-based Lipstadt is the featured speaker at a promotional reading of her latest book. He stands up amidst the audience and, with bullying arrogance and bravado, insists on a debate with her. But Lipstadt (with the usually regal Weisz making an impressive stretch as the tough, brash, crusading intellectual) brusquely refuses to take him on. Weisz goes uncharacteristically unglamorous in a full-bodied Oscar-worthy performance with just the right ballsiness and academic pallor and rectitude to make her determined character not just someone to believe but to believe in.

Spall chillingly nails Irving, the low-born, wholly self-educated, overly confident posh poseur who apparently had a history of winning lawsuits that allowed him a Mayfair/Rolls-Royce lifestyle. No dummy, Irving over the years read extensively about Hitler and became a kind of twisted expert Hitler worshipper. The nail-biter of a court decision (by a judge, as the case was not tried by jury), in a trial that made headlines for months, found Irving to be not just a Holocaust denier, but a falsifier of history, a racist and anti-Semite.

As scarily convincing as Spall is, Jackson says he is “the absolute opposite of his character. He was struck by archival material of German boys and some elderly near war’s end who got behind Hitler to fight. Tim sees Hitler as a monster whose kind of monstrosity might live in anyone.”

Regarding the superb cast he assembled and sharing his perspective of having worked with top talent on both sides of the pond, Jackson comments that “the British actors bring great professional training to the work which can be different from a method acting approach, which often means less preparation. But Rachel [who is British] wanted to be more spontaneous, which is not characteristic of the training background of British actors.”

He was especially impressed by Weisz’s ability to capture Lipstadt’s essence onscreen. “She’s a wonderful actress. She likes being in the moment. She’s spirited like Deborah, as well as sharp, impulsive and empathetic. Rachel likes to immerse herself in a scene without too many preconceptions, so everything strikes her afresh. Hers is a very raw, accessible performance.”

With Weisz so inhabiting her character, it’s no surprise that when asked how much input she required, Jackson responds, “Oh boy, did she ever! We were endlessly on the phone with her!” And she and Lipstadt, who bonded throughout the production, were even more constantly communicating, often with Weisz ringing her right before a scene.

Lipstadt’s public affront in Atlanta to refuse any confrontation with Irving, an early scene, no doubt pushed him further into filing his lawsuit as, her book’s accusation aside, he continued in his demagogic way to loudly maintain his rant that the Holocaust was a myth. But fighter that she was (and is), Lipstadt refused to settle and took a leave of absence from Emory to have it out with Irving in the London court.

Arrived in London, she also had to “have it out” a bit with Rampton and Julius, as her lead lawyers’ strategy was to keep out of trial proceedings not only Lipstadt but also Holocaust survivors eager to testify. (Another British legal system curiosity has a strict division of labor with barristers, who also input legal advice, being the courtroom showmen arguing on behalf of their clients (call it the courtroom heavy lifting) while solicitors are backroom strategists (sort of back-office heavy-lifters) who formulate strategy, undertake negotiations, draft documents and focus on research and manpower.

Rampton and Julius’ counterintuitive strategy to keep Lipstadt and survivors from testifying issued from their belief that Irving would verbally pummel these witnesses under his questioning (Irving represented himself) and that their passions and emotions would distract from the defense’s goal of proving forensically that the Holocaust and its mass murders happened. The case spun on the physical layout of the Auschwitz crematoria, holes in the ceilings where the Zyklon B was administered for the purpose of mass extermination. And, equally important, the defense needed to show that Irving intentionally lied about there being no Holocaust.

Denial is suspenseful and gripping as a court case with the Holocaust hovering at its center but is often far from what many viewers might expect. Jackson had the chore of delivering his drama with its outcome known to many, as the trial got significant media coverage. Denial is also a rare courtroom drama in which the defendant and main character is not allowed to take the stand. So, Jackson’s own strategy was to ramp up the tussle that Lipstadt and the somewhat eccentric Rampton have over this decision and “underscore the up and down of that tangle” that endured for some time.

A significant segment of the film was shot at Auschwitz, as Rampton, believing it critical he visit the camp as research, has Lipstadt and the team meet there. But Denial, with no references to what in Lipstadt’s past brought her to an intellectual and professional life immersed in Jewish history and Holocaust studies, cannot be called a Jewish film. In no way is it narratively another familiar revisiting of the horrors of World War II, and even veiled is that Julius himself is Jewish. Says Jackson, “The film is about the triumph of truth and justice over lies.”

Denial had a rather long gestation. After optioning Lipstadt’s book, producers Gary Foster and Russ Krasnoff worked eight years to get the film to the screen. Jackson says he and Hare “worked together [on the script] over four or five years. He’d send me a draft of a scene and we’d exchange ideas.”

And Jackson had some important story input. “I brought the idea for the ‘self-denial’ scene, when Rampton tells Lipstadt [who was so determined to take part in the trial] that she has to self-deny by staying out of the proceedings.” He also contributed a key scene at the film’s outset that really happened but wasn’t in the script, that of Irving unexpectedly showing up in the U.S. at her reading and rising in the audience to interrupt her.

Jackson isn’t sure that the public snub further motivated Irving to launch the defamation suit a few years later, but guesses a stronger motive: “He had a history of engaging in lawsuits that he settled [to his advantage] out of court and that allowed him to live like a man of wealth.”

So what attracted Jackson to Denial? “Two major things got me involved. When I first saw Hare’s early draft, there were a number of reasons why I wanted to do it. First, there’s a social imperative. We’ve been living in a culture of lies for a number of years; it’s now embedded in our culture and is much the result of the ability of demagogues. Goebbels [Hitler’s Nazi propaganda minister] told the big lies and kept repeating them for ideological reasons. That there was no Holocaust [as David Irving continuously proclaimed] is the biggest lie of all and the power it had is a sign of how embedded lying is in our culture.” Suggesting the film’s relevance now and what many viewers will immediately seize upon is that “the pervasive lying is indicative of the ability of our demagogues, even today with Trump.”

And there were more personal reasons for Jackson’s involvement. “A while ago when I was a documentary guy with the BBC, I worked on ‘The Ascent of Man’ and did a segment on Auschwitz when it had not yet been tidied up. This was the early ’70s and it was still raw. The place struck me with great force, that profound force in the way it hit Rampton. Like me, Tom [Wilkinson] is not Jewish but felt such outrage and I shared that. So getting onboard the film was such an important and interesting opportunity.”

Often directors have considerable input into scripts but “with David Hare [whose writing includes scripts for Damage, The Hours and The Reader, more than 30 stage plays and many TV credits] there’s not a lot to do,” Jackson declares. But the filmmaker did make several important script contributions: “My idea was to make Rampton the second most important figure after Lipstadt and underscore the relationship between the two. After all, she is not what you’d call a mild-mannered individual, yet she had to be silent throughout the case as this was important to Rampton’s strategy. Irving denies history to serve himself; she has to deny what she is [outspoken and firm in her beliefs] and answer [in the interest of her lawyers and her case]: Do you listen to your heart or your head?”

To serve her case and Rampton’s wishes, Lipstadt listens to the lawyer, as emotions and survivor witness testimony have no role in proving what’s at the heart of their case, that the gas chambers were mass killing chambers. (Irving actually insisted the chambers were there mainly to de-lice dead bodies and serve as bomb shelters for the camp’s SS officers.)

There are no witnesses or photos to record what happened inside the chambers, so the defense really had its challenges. As her lawyers gather cold, hard facts of forensic evidence, the film tracks Lipstadt on her rugged journey to justice (and Irving’s to condemnation, shame and even bankruptcy, as an end title informs).

Denial goes beyond the usual courtroom and history stories to provide a fascinating look inside the British legal justice system and how the power and brilliance of articulate and dedicated lawyers like Rampton and Julius exact justice.

Drawing on his background in documentaries, Jackson says that “what you see and hear is pretty accurate.” He also credits Hare and “our access to court papers. His script [which covered more than 30 days’ worth of court transcript] was long, so we really compressed that. But every word is verbatim.”

With its carefully devised visual palette and location shooting, Denial also pleases the eye. Once a painter, Jackson says he was inspired by Age of Enlightenment artists like Dutch painter Vermeer, “the way he used light and, above all, by the notion that light represents truth. So I thought that a movie about truth should have a luminous quality to it,” he continues, noting that his director of photography, Haris Zambarloukos, was very influenced by Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2015 Oscar-winning black-and-white film Ida. “We were well aware of contrasting environments: Atlanta being nice and warm, the London courtroom cold, Auschwitz with its empty silence. But we also wanted the natural feel that the right luminosity and single-source lighting bring.”

Locations, which Jackson also sought to capture in semi-documentary style, included London (notably the Royal Courts of Justice where the actual trial took place), Auschwitz (where filming was allowed) and Krakow, Poland, at a typical vast eastern European space where a chill between Lipstadt and Rampton warms up. Jackson explains, “Yes, there was animosity when they [Lipstadt and Rampton] left Auschwitz, as he was actually late in getting there for the arranged tour and he didn’t want to grieve. He appeared cold and too objective to her, but that was his job.”

Rampton emerges a key character, but it was Lipstadt who most interested Jackson. “The film is her personal journey. She’s solitary in Atlanta where she lives and works, but when she comes to London, it’s a different world. And it’s through her London stay that she learns that she’s part of a band of brothers. She learns the value of teamwork.”

Jackson cares deeply about what drives the film, both its central theme of truth and the central character’s dilemma, which also gives the title its double meaning: “To win this case, which is about Holocaust denial, Deborah will have to deny herself the glory of standing up in court and speaking to this monster, as this act of self-denial is her only hope of beating Irving’s charges… She asks her lawyers so many questions, yet she’s reluctantly forced to be silent in what matters most [the trial itself].”

Asked about any changes he’d make in the film if he could, Jackson responds, “I’m happy with the film as it is. What did and does worry me is that the Holocaust is becoming abstract.”