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Jane Kelly: Britain again plays Athens to America’s Rome

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Not just Donald Trump goes weak at the knees at the thought of our comical little island with its twee traditions. England still swings like a pendulum do, even if we cannot see it ourselves and America reveres and respects us for our very strange ways. At least that conclusion can be drawn from the film Denial.

On one level, it concerns the libel claim brought by historian David Irving against Penguin books and American historian Deborah Lipstadt. In 1995 he challenged her book, Denying the Holocaust; the Growing Assault of Truth and Memory, published two years earlier, in which she accused him of rewriting history and claiming that the Holocaust was a myth. Irving was incensed by a reference to him on page 180 as ‘discredited.’ She also called him, ‘one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial…he bends it (historical material) until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda.’

You cannot get a darker subject but Denial is a strangely winsome, almost light-hearted film. Once Lipstadt had arrived at her London barrister’s cramped, book-filled office, attention is drawn several times to a plate of untouched digestive biscuits. They looked like product placement, and in a way they were; the product on offer being Merrie old England.

Audiences were also treated to red telephone boxes along wet London streets, incessant rain for the grumbling Lipstadt in a Burberry mack to battle through, a daring lack of US mores as bibulous old beaks in wigs threw back claret and scotch. There was an offer of tea in a moment of intense crisis, which Lipstadt naturally rejected crossly. We also had a dark oak-lined court room where people bowed deferentially, which she refused to do. Rather than a gritty court room drama it was clearly more a dream about England, as cosy and convincing as the photo on a tin of shortbread.

The film does honour some US traditions. Financed by the BBC and ‘Participant Media’, an American film production company dedicated to entertainment which ‘inspires and compels social change’, it goes in for some didactic casting. It wasn’t exactly Hollywood. Hilary Swank originally cast as Lipstadt dropped out and there was no Brad Pitt popping up shouting ‘objection!’, but the bad character was ugly while the good ones were beautiful. Despite the wigs we were clearly in the world of white and black hats.

Irving is played by Timothy Spall although their looks couldn’t be more different. The historian is a large, handsome, bombastic man with a head of thick white hair and a very square jaw. Spall, who has lost a great deal of weight recently, is tiny, with thin mousy hair, nose like a pen and no chin to speak of. He plays Irving like a cringing, wounded animal. Lipstadt is not a pretty woman, but is played by Rachel Weisz, an English rose.

Playwright David Hare has also provided a simplified script, aimed at some mysterious mid-market audience containing only one real hard nugget from the trial. Historian Richard Evans, played by John Sessions, doesn’t have any actual lines and just smiles genially. Yet Evans provided copious evidence about Irving’s cunning calumnies, enough to fill his book, Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial.

Evan’s evidence meticulously exposed the half-truths and distortions in Irving’s 1977 book, Hitler’s War, in which he argued that Hitler didn’t know about the Holocaust and there was no Holocaust for Hitler to know about. He also wrote that the number of Jews killed, ‘is wrong by an order of magnitude…500,000 to 600,000 instead of five to six million.’

In Denial only one of his assertions is explored, an order from Hitler that a particular transport of Jews from Berlin should not be liquidated. This was an example of a Irving’s method, which historian Raul Hilberg, writing in 1994, called ‘the snapshot fallacy.’

On page 505 of Hitler’s War, Irving quotes Himmler’s telephone notes of November 30, 1941, when on Hitler’s orders he telephoned Reinhard Heydrich ordering that there was to be ‘no liquidation’ of Jews. Irving took this ‘snapshot’ out of historical context and concluded from it that, ‘the Fuehrer had ordered that the Jews were not to be liquidated’. Hilberg pointed out that what the log really says is, ‘Jewish transport from Berlin. No Liquidation.’ A reference to one particular transport, not all Jews.

Ironically, Hilberg reported, that transport was liquidated. The order was either ignored or it was too late. The transport had already arrived in Riga and they didn’t know what to do with these thousand people so they shot them that very same evening. In addition, for Hitler to veto an order for liquidation implies that liquidation was something that was taking place.

We don’t get any more court room exploration of Irving’s distortions because Denial is not really about gloomy old Auschwitz, just out of sight like some repulsive elderly aunt no one wishes to visit. Instead it presents an optimistic view of contemporary relations between America and the UK.

This is the story of how a clever but emotional American lawyer with a painful accent, learned to shut up and listen to the cold, canny, frequently drunk Brits, who knew how to play the game to win.

The wily drunks are led by Jewish solicitor and academic Anthony Julius, aged sixty, played by beautiful gay Irish actor Andrew Scott, twenty years younger, who doesn’t look Jewish at all. There are no overtly Jewish faces in the film.

With the forethought of a chess player Julius decides that to safeguard themselves they will have no jury only a judge. To get Irving to agree to this he flatters him by suggesting that no jury could follow the complexities of his work. Irving swallows this whole but Lipstadt wants to take the stand herself along with Holocaust survivors. Julius and his team are adamant that neither will happen. They see that to win they must keep the trial focused solely on Irving and deny him any chance to demolish witnesses.

Lipstadt is furious and bewildered until it’s all carefully explained to her by Richard Rampton QC, played by Tom Wilkinson in the manner of Mr Jaggers in Great Expectations, or perhaps Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfred Robarts in Witness for the Prosecution which was set in the Old Bailey. Wilkinson, knocking back Scotch as he works on his brief, all drooping jowls and gimlet eyes, gives a tour de force performance as a wild British barrister, a law unto himself in pursuit of justice.

The film’s turning point comes not with the defeat of Irving but when Rampton persuades the emotionally incontinent American to pipe down and do it the English way. Poor lovely Lipstadt agrees to control her wobbly lip and comply with the emotionally repressed Brits and is successfully protected from Irving’s aggression.

Denial is itself a snapshot. A small, low budget film, on limited release in the USA, it speaks loudly about an America losing self-confidence, struggling in a new age of uncertainty and shocking equivalence, where an alliance can even be proposed between the USA and Putin’s Russia. Rather than a film about terrible historical events it turns out to be a very reassuring fable about a once mighty nation reaching out to an old ally perceived as quaint but trustworthy, not entirely knowable but magnificently wise and steady; a young country acting out Mark Twain’s cute old adage that as he grew up from boy to man, he noticed that his father had learned a lot.

(Image: Piet Theisohn)

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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