Tuesday, October 11, 2016

“There Oughta Be a Law”: The Legal System on Trial in “Denial”

I just saw the brilliant Ivo van Hove production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Several of the play’s longshoreman characters can’t grasp why the American judiciary system doesn’t hold sway over problems that are, frankly, psychological and moral rather than legalistic. A different view of the law shows up in Denial, the recent film about the 1996 libel trial in which British Holocaust denier David Irving accused American historian Deborah Lipstadt of defaming him in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust.

Irving sued Lipstadt and her publishers in Britain rather than the U.S. because within the British legal system the burden of proof is on the defendant, not the accuser. So it was crucial that Lipstadt prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Irving (a self-made historian with a large following) was in fact an anti-Semite and a Nazi apologist, one who bent the existing facts of the Holocaust to suit his own purposes. As was said at the time in newspapers around the globe, history itself was on trial.

This sounds like the making of a highly dramatic film. We all love courtroom dramas, with their rising tension, surprise witnesses, and stunning reversals. Denial, has a problem, though. The film tries hard to be true to what actually happened in that London courtroom. (Given the nature of its central issue, sticking to facts was clearly essential.) And so some of the things we adore about courtroom movies just weren’t allowed to happen here. I’m sure screenwriter David Hare (himself an eminent dramatist) really struggled to inject theatrical twists and turns into a story for which the outcome is well-known and scripted courtroom fireworks were not allowed.

I went to see Denial both because its subject matter interested me and because I, once upon a time, served on the same faculty as Deborah Lipstadt. This was early in her academic career (and mine), well before she made her mark as a respected professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Atlanta’s Emory University. I remember her back then as smart, feisty, and focused. A sturdy-looking natural redhead, she was definitely not a push-over. I know for certain that she didn’t suffer fools gladly. 

Movies being movies, Rachel Weisz is a great deal prettier than the woman she portrays on screen. The auburn hair Weisz sports in the film is stylish in a way that Lipstadt’s wash-and-wear do is not. But the British-born Weisz does an excellent job of reproducing Lipstadt’s New York speech patterns. (In a rare humorous moment, the film points out that Lipstadt’s zesty accent is Queens, not Brooklyn.) Honestly, she sounded like Deborah to me.

But because Deborah Lipstadt, both in life and in the film, is a strong and outspoken individual, I’m sure the audience kept waiting for her to take the conduct of the trial into her own hands. The film shows her meeting her British legal team, who patiently explain to her the way England’s justice system works. No, they don’t want her taking the stand in her own defense. No, they don’t want to call as witnesses the Holocaust survivors who beg to be included as a way to air their own sufferings and those of the loved ones they’ve lost. The lawyers keep begging Lipstadt to trust them, and to keep her mouth shut until the verdict is delivered. That’s why the film’s title, Denial, has a double meaning. It’s only through self-denial, and through bowing to the expertise of her team, that Lipstadt can get the victory that she and the world so badly need.

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