Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Denial: Making “Drama”

Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt in Denial. (Photo: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street Media)

Playing Deborah Lipstadt, the American Holocaust scholar sued for libel in an English court by alleged historian David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier in print, Rachel Weisz carries herself with the uneasy tension of a warrior in repose in Denial. Contemporary movies and TV are loaded with examples of British actors who have so mastered not just the accents but also the verbal rhythms of Americans from different regions that it’s a shock to discover their true origins; it’s one trick that even the great generation of Brits who came up before the Second World War – the Oliviers and Gielguds and Richardsons – could never quite manage. But Weisz doesn’t just sound like a New Yorker. She’s physicalized all the elements of Lipstadt’s identity, including the Jewish part and the feminist part and the teacher-scholar part. (Lipstadt has an endowed chair in Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University.) A friend told me that when he watched Jessica Lange dancing in the opening scene of Music Box, set at a Midwestern Hungarian community center, he murmured to himself, “Oh, my God, she’s turned herself into a Hungarian.” That’s how I felt about Weisz playing an American Jew in Denial: it’s in the sound and the look. Lipstadt is an intellectual with a lifelong comfortableness with speaking her mind; Weisz plays her as alert, gutsy, dukes-up. It’s a vibrant, comprehensive portrait.

Unfortunately the movie itself, which was written by the English playwright David Hare and directed by Mick Jackson, is a disappointment. Lipstadt had referred to Irving on only a few pages of her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, but, protesting that she had damaged his reputation, he took her and her publisher, Penguin, to court. It’s easy to see where the drama in the material lies when you read her chronicle of the case, History on Trial, and even when you read Lying About Hitler by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, her defense team’s principal expert witness. (Evans takes us through his construction of the case against Irving for distorting evidence in his book Hitler’s War and also – to demonstrate a consistent methodology of falsification to support an ideological bias – in his first book, The Destruction of Dresden.) In an American court, the onus would have been on Irving to prove that Lipstadt had libeled him, but in a British one it’s on the defendant to disprove it (or to show that the plaintiff had misinterpreted her words or that they had not been intended to defame him, neither of which, clearly, was the case here). So Lipstadt’s legal team, led by the barrister Richard Rampton and the solicitor Anthony Julius, had to prove “justification” – that her words were accurate, even if they were defamatory. Irving claimed that Hitler did not order the slaughter of the Jews and that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. English libel law required the judge, Charles Gray, to take his claims seriously, patently absurd though they would seem to be to anyone but another Holocaust denier. Therein lies the drama: how do you go about proving something that is so obvious? Evans, quoting his fellow historian David Cesarani, explains that “evidence in history is not like evidence in court. . . . In a court of law, context and circumstance are the least important evidence; they may be deemed inadmissible, not real evidence.  The court wants physical evidence, a fingerprint that no one can argue with, but in history context and circumstance matter a great deal.” And how do you do so with such thoroughness that Irving’s anti-Semitism is exposed to the light of day and his claims to be treated as a serious historian totally dismantled? The stakes could hardly have been higher: once Irving took Lipstadt to court for libel, if she didn’t win her case then his loathsome fabrications would actually throw a shadow over the bright list of history.

Timothy Spall as David Irving in Denial. (Photo: Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street Media)

Yet Hare somehow feels the need to invent drama, and invented drama generally comes across as melodrama. He sets up a series of conflicts between Deborah and her lawyers. Julius (Andrew Scott, in an understated performance) is determined that the way to defeat Irving is to pick away at his research, making one hole after another, while damning him through his associations with anti-Semitic Holocaust revisionist groups. Videotapes of his appearances as a guest speaker at a variety of conferences show him entertaining the crowd with jokes denigrating survivors. Julius is resolute about not calling survivors as witnesses, while Deborah feels she owes it to them to give their suffering a voice. In fact, in History on Trial Lipstadt presents Julius’ decision as an unanimous one, explaining, “To have called survivors would have suggested we needed ‘witnesses of fact’ – eyewitnesses – to prove there was a Holocaust. That was our legal reason. In truth, we had another reason. Irving was representing himself because, he said, no lawyer could present his case as well as he could. He would, therefore, cross-examine the witnesses. We did not consider it ethical to subject survivors to cross-examination by a man whose primary objective, we feared, was their humiliation. . . . I did not want to risk him ridiculing survivors – even those who insisted that they were eager to testify.” The film also makes an issue out of the legal team’s insistence on keeping Lipstadt herself off the stand and insisting that she refrain from giving interviews while the trial is proceeding. Worst of all, when Deborah first meets Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), it’s on a trip to Auschwitz to gather forensic evidence. He arrives at their meeting point late – because, it turns out, he got there before her and has been measuring the grounds, but she assumes it’s a sign of disrespect, and then she misreads his English reserve as brusqueness. Naturally, when she sees how passionately and with what moral righteousness he argues the case, she realizes her mistake, and they become buddies. Thus their entire relationship is scored as a series of sentimental clichés – not a charge I ever thought I’d make against David Hare. (Wilkinson is quite good for the most part, but the distraction of having to resolve the discomfort between Rampton and Deborah damages his performance.)

Richard Evans (John Sessions) doesn’t get much to do in the movie; if Hare felt he had to look around for drama, he might have brought him in from the periphery. Evans determined to remain objective from the outset – to assume that a man who’d written nearly two dozen books about history, some of which had received enthusiastic press, was a bona fide historian until the evidence proved otherwise. At the heart of Evans’ fascinating book is his astonishment and outrage as, point after point, Irving’s methods for falsifying history – omission, mistranslation, obfuscation, untrustworthy sources – tear away at his reputability; the book is like the police procedural that leads up to Lipstadt’s courtroom drama. “As I completed his 740-page report,” Lipstadt writes in History on Trial, “I thought back to our dinner a year earlier when Evans had so summarily dismissed my suggestion that he tell the court that David Irving is no historian. . . . The encounter with the evidence, however, resulted in Evans’ striking about-face and the devastating critique of Irving’s work that followed. Evans didn’t allow his personal or popular opinion to skew objective information facing him. And this, I reminded myself, is how true historians operate.” Now that’s drama.

Alex Jennings is effective as Judge Gray, but after Weisz, the best thing in Denial is Timothy Spall’s sly portrait of a bigot puffed up with his own self-importance and with his vision of himself as the scholar as popular entertainer. Spall doesn’t try to psychoanalyze Irving; typically he honors the character’s mystery, just as he did when he played the painter J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. But the filmmakers can’t resist the temptation: there’s some reference to a nutty childhood, and they make up a scene at the top of the film where Irving shows up at one of Deborah’s public appearances, long before he opts to sue her for libel, and tries to hijack it. The sequence is hyped-up and not well directed, and considering how much we get of Irving’s bizarre carny-barker side during the trial, it’s unnecessary. I understand the need for a dramatist who’s dealing with non-fiction material to be selective, and the exchanges between real-life characters shouldn’t read like transcripts. But this is the second time this fall that a movie’s inventions have come across as fake because, in fact, they were fake. The first was the National Transit Safety Board hearing sequences in Sully, where the pilot who saved all the lives of his passengers and crew by landing his plane on the Hudson was subjected to implausibly mean-spirited interrogation based on transparently fatuous evidence against his story. The primary obligation of a movie based on a true story may not be absolute adherence to the truth, but in these cases the truth is a hell of a lot better, and real drama is always cheapened when it’s cut with melodrama.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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