I’ve always found conspiracy theories fascinating. Not in the “I believe them” sense. More in the “What is wrong with this person that causes them to believe this absurd thing” sense. And maybe, occasionally, sometimes, in the “Let’s laugh at this person” sense, although I do try and feel guilty about that one. I mean, Alex Jones is clearly mentally unwell, but try to watch this video of him uncovering how Hillary faked opening a pickle jar without laughing.
But then there are the conspiracy theories that movie beyond mere amusing stupidity and into dismaying awfulness. And chief among those conspiracies is Holocaust Denial. While most conspiracy theories have their roots deep in racism or antisemitism, Holocaust Denial makes no attempts to disguise it’s roots in ugly racial hatred. As such, while the delusions and misconceptions its believers labor under are just as fascinating to me, it’s never been a conspiracy theory that’s been addressed much on film.
…Okay yeah, Mr. Death, but outside of that.
Based on the book, History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier, the plot concerns Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) a historian specializing in the Holocaust and specifically Holocaust Denial. In 1996 she published the book Denying the Holocaust (which I have read, and it’s excellent) about…well the title just says it all. In it she mentions historian David Irving (Timothy Spall), pointing out that A, he’s a Holocaust Denier, and B, that makes him a bad historian.
David Irving, being a garbage human, didn’t take too well to that and decided that the best way to handle it was, rather than stop denying the Holocaust, to sue her for pointing out he denies the Holocaust. While this should be a simple open and shut case, under British libel law, the burden of proof is put on the accused. So it falls to Libstadt and her legal team to prove that Irving knew he was lying or altering his reporting to serve his agenda.
So the movie is a courtroom drama, with an effort made to keep it grounded and realistic, given the seriousness of its subject matter, which means it appeals to me, but then I am very weird. I tend to like realistic court room dramas over the absurd over dramatic things that we usually get, so if you’re looking for a John Grisham novel in movie form, you can probably search elsewhere. Those of you in the market for a reasonably smart and well made court room drama, with an eye towards history and conspiracy nuts, will probably get more out of this.
Of course basing your entire movie around obscure legal procedure and character researching legal precedent is probably not a surefire way to make a blockbuster smash, so the movie has to find other things to focus on. The relationship between the modern age and the Holocaust is a solid theme to engage with, and while it doesn’t quite manage to reach Maus levels of handling that theme, it does a good job of showing how the horrific events have shaped, or failed to shape, everyone. A brief history of Holocaust deniers is also an interesting detour, since we not only have to engage with Irving’s horrifying beliefs, but also the basis for them (bringing up things like the Leuchter report and the absurdity of its creation…seriously, see Mr. Death, it’s an incredible documentary).
But those are mere thematic elements or plot detours, the meat of the thing still needs to be the courtroom, and that’s going to be on the actor’s shoulders. The bulk of it is, strangely enough depending on Timothy Spall. He cuts a genteel, yet slimy presence in the film, his solid wall of politeness and pretense towards a devotion to the truth never crumbling, Given how he talks and acts, I totally buy why one of the lawyers is insistent that he not get a chance to interview any Holocaust survivors, which is one of the central conflicts of the case. It’s no doubt very hard role to play someone as awful as a Holocaust Denier on film, but Spall does a fantastic job, even if the film is entirely uninterested in the reasons why he is the way he is (more on that in a moment).
Aside from that, no one gets an especially difficult part to play, but they all do it ably. Weisz is probably capable of doing a role like this in her sleep, but she puts some real effort into her role, emphasizing outrage at being forced to even pretend to take this whole situation seriously. Tom Wilkinson makes a great lead to the legal team as the man actually tasked with talking in court. It never gets old to watch him standing up in his slightly silly wig (sorry England, the wigs are silly), dripping contempt for Irving and everything he stands for. The rest of her legal team is solid, although minor mention must go to Anthony Scott, since he winds up more or less second in command of the legal attack, behind Wilkinson.
If I have an issue with the movie, it’s that it never seems to be pushing the envelope too hard. Outside of the scenes shot at Aushchwitz, the direction and editing are bog standard, and the script doesn’t feel like stepping outside the box either. My favorite movie of the year is still The Lobster, and that’s partially because it’s just so goddamned weird. Making a straightforward movie, designed to coast on good performances and the import of its subject matter is no crime, I just wish it was willing to be a little more different.
Still, I can’t fault it for being what it wants to be, and given that the best way to make it weirder would have been trying to get inside David Irving’s head, I can’t fault it for shying away from that either (seriously though, Mr. Death is incredible). Denial may be no more than what it appears to be, but what it appears to be is completely fine. It’s a very good movie that every so often flirts with being a great movie, and I highly recommend it.
Elessar is a 26 year old, Alaskan born cinephile and 9/11 Truthers can f**k off too.
– solid script
– great acting
– engaging story and subject
– not very creative
– ending is a little slow