Modern historical courtcase drama, we see the real life story of Deborah Lipstadt standing against Holocaust denier David Irving with stakes far beyond the libel case pretext. Darren reviews.
My hands shake a little, even just typing those few words. Over the last 100 years there has not been a greater example of the worst parts of humanity. A vile and terrifying systematic destruction of the Jewish people, homosexuals and political dissenters. Telling any story about it, no matter how distant to the event, becomes a dizzying responsibility. Trying to be both respectful and provocative, honouring the dead and informing the living. Is there a more difficult balance for a filmmaker to strike?
Deborah Lipstadt is a historian. When her new book is published, calling David Irving a Holocaust denier he begins court proceedings for libel. Claiming that her book has ruined his career, it’s up to her and her lawyers to prove her words, without allowing the trial to become about the veracity of the Holocaust.
There is a danger in true stories.
How do you tell a true story without becoming bogged down in the minutiae? As a people we love stories, and because of this we have come to expect certain things of our stories, even the true ones. This is why, in many ways, true stories do not make good movies without some severe tweaking. When they focus on the truth too much they become boring, staid and tedious. With this in mind most works then try to capture the truth while not being entirely true.
Yet in Denial there is this fantastic tension between those two ideas. We see the events within the work and, with our movie goggles on, have certain expectations of what must occur. Every time someone speaks out against our heroine we expect this rebuttal, a passionate speech about the Holocaust and defending the survivors. This is tempered with our knowledge of the stakes; that if she does so, she could lose.
This is one of the works strength, this playing of our expectations and reality.
This split continues in another way, through the direction. At times it seems as if another director has taken the helm at key moments. Most is shot in a traditional style, focusing on close ups of our leads, no real pans, just close group work. In a way it’s very bland, what you’d expect out of any dime-a-dozen courtroom recreation, but at points an entirely different direction takes place. The light, soundtrack-laden character moments give way sharply to silence, a long shot of Auschwitz with only the slowly melting snow for sound. A slightly shaky pan of the discarded shoes and luggage, piled high to reinforce the human lives lost. Then, almost jarringly we’re back to our character pieces. It’s surprising how well this works, coupled with a few simple scenes superimposed with other images (that I won’t spoil) which had me audibly gasping with shock at times. It was never expected and it took me out of the work, to remind me of what this was all for.
The cast all performs admirably but there isn’t a lot of meat on these roles. Weisz’s character is mostly silent through a lot of the proceedings, and you can see the internal conflict this provides but obviously doesn’t lend itself to a lot of intimate character moments.
As is typical though, it’s the villain that gets a lot of the juicier moments and Spall is terrifyingly congenial throughout the entire movie. His pleasant grin is fantastically deceptive as he presents himself as the injured party, the wronged victim. Holding himself to the bounds of ‘English civility’ all through the movie but you can see lurking in the back of that false face a deceptively horrible man. A racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, fascist demagogue who wants nothing more than to be heard. To be given a platform to deceive all who would listen. Who wants nothing more than the lead to lash out, to attack him, so he can be proven right as he plays the victim.
Remind you of anyone?
In many ways if this was released even five years ago, it would be slightly forgettable. A solid work with good direction, good casting and a solid script but with no real subtext or bigger context to propel it into public consciousness.
However, it wasn’t released then; it was released now. It speaks with the voice of the Zeitgeist and with that in mind it needs to be listened to.
I’d almost say it was imperative to watch this, to re-centre yourself with the world at large. To remember that this only occurred less than twenty years ago. To remember some important lessons of history.
If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what would.