By Andrea Gronvall firstname.lastname@example.org
The Gronvall Report: Author Deborah E. Lipstadt On DENIAL, David Hare And Rachel Weisz
What happens when an American historian writes something about a Brit where she dismisses his authority as an historian, and he then sues her for libel, and she discovers that the British legal system doesn’t operate on the American judicial presumption of “innocent, until proven guilty,” but that she and her defense team must prove that her accuser is the liar? Denial, rolling out in platform release via Bleecker Street, takes such a real-life case and turns it into a courtroom cliffhanger. Directed by Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard, HBO’s “Temple Grandin”) from a screenplay by David Hare (Damage, The Hours), the film is based on Deborah E. Lipstadt’s account, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2006). In her book she details how as a holder in 1995 of an endowed chair in Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Atlanta’s Emory University, she received a letter from Penguin, the British publisher of her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” informing her that British author David Irving was suing for being called a Holocaust denier. The movie is largely concerned with her trial in London, and every line of dialogue in the courtroom scenes is lifted verbatim from official transcripts. Essentially, she and her team had to prove that the Holocaust happened.
Oscar winner Rachel Weisz stars as Lipstadt; Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton, Snowden) costars as her Scottish barrister, alongside Andrew Scott (Spectre, BBC’s “Sherlock”) as her British solicitor, and Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner, the Harry Potter franchise) as David Irving—a dream cast if ever there was one. Lipstadt recently visited Chicago to talk about the film. I was truly struck not only by the level of her erudition, but also by how quick, lively, good-humored, and forthcoming she was at such an early hour.
During the pre-production of Denial you met a few times with David Hare, and he eventually gave you his screenplay to read. After you read it, what were your comments?
I was very careful, because he is one of the great screenwriters of our time. I didn’t say “I don’t like this” or “I don’t like that,” or “I think we should have the character move here.” I looked for inconsistencies, or I looked for mistakes, like a line about hanging chads, and then I would say, “That’s a great line, David Hare, but that happened after my trial.” That kind of thing, or where he wrote when I learned about something—like when did you learn that the British legal system put the burden [of proof] on you—and I had learned that very early on, whereas he had that happening later in the screenplay. I was sensitive to content items relating directly to me that had either been ambiguous in the book, or might have got confused in my transmission to him, but nothing in terms of dramatic construction.
A movie adaptation can’t include everything that’s in the book or any other original source material. Is there anything in your book that you wish the film had included, but didn’t?
You know, I always joke that the movie version I would have made would have been four hours long—and that’s the short version. There was stuff I didn’t even include in my book, because then my book would have been 700 pages. A couple of things: first of all, the incredible support I received from my university. They were behind me, setting up a travel fund for me, easing my teaching load. When I went off to go on trial, I was going to take a leave of absence because I was on salary, but they said, no, of course not, you just go, it’ll be as if the courtroom is your classroom from afar.
So, I wish that that had been there, and I wish there’d been a little more emphasis on David Irving’s rightwing extremism and connections. The racism I think is played out very well: the ditty he sings to his daughter, what he says about the women who work for him—the Sri Lankan, the Pakistani, a Barbadian. But what we found in his diaries! He used to go to America very often, and there was a gentleman in Louisiana who would come down to Key West to spend time with him and play tennis. This guy, whose name was David Duke, was writing a book, and Irving offered him editing suggestions.
And that Irving called on a Cal State-Long Beach professor named Kevin MacDonald to testify—the only person he brought in who didn’t have to be subpoenaed—who was trying to show that I was part of a vast Jewish conspiracy. And that guy now is connected with the alt-right, which is heavily associated with Breitbart News, a far-right extremist site that’s very racist, and very anti-Semitic.
But by and large, if the filmmakers had to choose what material to fit into an hour and fifty minutes, I think they did it very, very well. The things that impressed me so much, as the person to whom it happened, and as an historian, was their emphasis on truth, on getting it right.
David Hare has said that he deliberately chose not to try to delve into Irving’s psychology; rightly so, because how could Hare, realistically, play armchair shrink? But that does raise a very interesting point: why you? David Irving must have had many other critics, so why did he go after you?
Great question–not only were there other critics, but critics who were far harder on him than I was. And I think she says it, at one point—“she,” meaning me—
The character, when she’s having lunch with her colleague. (A), I was an American. I was far away in Atlanta. He didn’t think I was going to fight. It was harder–how do I put together a defense team, what do I do? (B), I’m a woman, and he’s a misogynist, and anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism, are often together part of a whole package. And it’s certainly the case with David Irving. (C) I’m a Jew. I’m a Jew who’s not an ambiguous Jew; it’s part of my DNA. Like part of my DNA is that I’m a woman. How do I feel as a woman? I don’t know, ‘cause that’s the only thing I’ve ever been. At times people will ask Rachel, how do you find so many good parts for women? And she replies, you’re talking about women like they’re giraffes. It’s who I am, it’s inbred in who I am. And he wanted to prove that there’s this vast right-wing conspiracy, although I wasn’t its leader—I couldn’t be the leader, because I’m a woman, and you couldn’t have a woman as the leader.
Obviously, your movie is about the Holocaust, in that it is about Holocaust denial. But one can’t really categorize it as part of the expanding genre of Holocaust movies. In my mind I keep remembering a piece that the late Elie Wiesel wrote almost 40 years ago for “The New York Times Sunday Magazine” about the NBC mini-series “Holocaust.”
Oh, he hated it!
Hated it, but he used that review as springboard for an essay that reached beyond a mere review.
I know, I just finished a book containing that review, so I’ve got that review. I’m so sorry that Elie has passed away; he was a good friend, and a big supporter.
Looking back at that essay, I marvel at how prescient he was, that he foresaw this outpouring of Holocaust-themed works in drama, literature, and pop culture like movies and TV shows, creating a danger of–
Yes, trivializing the Holocaust.
And he was right in many respects. I would say that NBC’s “Holocaust” had an impact, but that’s for another conversation. It had a big impact, certainly, and in Germany it had a big impact.
But in general–
First of all, this is more a courtroom drama than it is about the Holocaust, although it’s that, too. It’s a unique blend, I think, of a courtroom drama and a movie about denial of the Holocaust, and about conspiracy theories. It’s interesting: David Hare—he may write this in his introduction to the new version of my book, which is now called “Denial”—was initially reluctant to take on the job, in part because he felt the Holocaust is such a tremendous topic. There’ve been so many poor and cheap productions on the subject, but then when he read my book, he was intrigued about a number of things: first, the courtroom drama; second, the contemporary relevance, which I’ll come back to in a minute; but third, the fact that in most films, where a woman, or some regular Joe, comes to battle, they somehow find their voice. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich, Henry Fonda’s character in 12 Angry Men—you know. David Hare said here was a story of a person who not only already had a voice, she had to deny her voice; she had to keep silent [in court and in the press]. She’s the central character, and the courtroom is the central setting, and yet she’s silent. Rachel plays much of this part with her eyes, with her facial expressions. I think she captures it magnificently.
But going back to that middle piece: when we started to plan this movie, and I say “we,’ because they brought me in a lot. I have friends who work in Hollywood, and when they heard the degree to which I was involved—David Hare shadowing me; Mick Jackson visiting me; the producers in the beginning, every few weeks and every few months calling with updates; Rachel wanting me to spend days at her house, just so she could get my accent, my temperament, my intonation, etc. But none of us–even a year ago as final plans were put in place, none of us assumed that the film would have contemporary relevance. I’m not talking about just the Presidential elections. I think it speaks to a much bigger issue about people feeling that truth and fact are negotiable, who feel that if they really believe something, it must be true. As in, “If I really believe that 9/11 was an inside job by the CIA, it must be true.” Or, “If I believe there were Muslims dancing in New Jersey on 9/11, it must be true.” Even though there was no evidence. If I said, “It’s my opinion that the earth is flat,” you would say, “This woman is crazy. That’s her opinion, but it’s a lie.”
There are lies, opinions, and there are facts. And what Holocaust deniers try to do, and now what so many people do, is take lies, where the evidence is all to the contrary, and turn them into opinion, to encroach on the facts. “The Economist” ran an article [print issue of September 10, 2016] about how we live in a post-truth era, and cited Stephen Colbert, that great American commentator, and his term “truthiness.” So what’s the takeaway? Films, I don’t think should have messages. If they have a message, they’re either very bad films, or they’re documentaries. One of the takeaways here is that in Denial there aren’t two sides to every opinion. There are only facts.