Deborah Lipstadt said that when the story of the libel trial she won against Holocaust denier David Irving was optioned by a major production company, she didn’t realize what one of the major takeaways from that film would be.
Lipstadt, a scholar at Emory University, won the case in England in 2000 after her legal team demonstrated that Lipstadt was correct when she wrote that Irving had deliberately misrepresented facts in order to deny the existence of the Holocaust.
Now, Lipstadt believes, the issue of truth in public discourse is still all too relevant.
“People believe now with all their heart that there are two sides to every story,” she said in an interview.
“There aren’t two sides to every story. There’s certain things that happened and certain things that didn’t.”
Lipstadt, who is played by Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz in the film “Denial,” cited numerous examples of people disputing facts, including conspiracy theorists who deny that the attacks on Sept. 11 happened or people who call into question the facts around the Sandy Hook shooting. Although she didn’t mention Donald Trump by name, she also referred to an unsubstantiated claim he had put forth that Muslims celebrated in New Jersey following the Sept. 11 attacks.
“There’s not a scintilla of evidence that that happened,” said Lipstadt, referring to the claim about Muslims. “I think one of the takeaways of this movie is that you have to be ready to stand up for facts.”
The suspense of whether Lipstadt and her lawyers can prove the facts of the Holocaust drives the film, but the 110-minute movie also creates tension by emphasizing the difficulty Lipstadt had in accepting her lawyers’ strategy of not having her or Holocaust survivors testify at the trial.
“I am a person who has spent her life expressing who I am and what I believe,” said Lipstadt. “Suddenly my work was being questioned and I couldn’t talk.”
It wasn’t easy for her. “That was exceptionally difficult,” she said. “I was being torn apart.”
Toward the middle of the film, Lipstadt and her lawyers, played by Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott, travel to Auschwitz to do a forensic evaluation of the concentration camp so they can prove in court that the Holocaust happened.
The result is a series of poignant scenes that demonstrate the difficulty of approaching the Holocaust from the emotionally muted perspective of collecting evidence for a trial.
“I had been to the Auschwitz many times, but this was a very difficult visit,” Lipstadt said. “I felt very alone.”
Lipstadt said she believes one of the “most powerful” moments in the movie occurs when Weisz says the memorial prayer “El malei rachamim” at Auschwitz.
Lipstadt praised Weisz for the accuracy of her portrayal, and she said seeing herself on screen was “an out of body experience.”
“It was really strange to hear an accent that sounded like my accent,” said Lipstadt, who grew up in New York. “Although everyone said that it didn’t sound like my accent, it was my accent.”
She said that Weisz would call her the night before shooting scenes to ask about how Lipstadt was feeling at different moments of the trial.
The resurgence of anti-Semitism makes the film topical, she said.
In her writing, she distinguishes between “hardcore anti-Semitism,” or denying fundamental facts about the Holocaust, and “softcore anti-Semitism,” which she described as not a denial of what happened, but a “denigration” of the Holocaust.
“It’s the same thing when people say I’ve heard enough about slavery; let’s stop talking about slavery,” she said. “I think is a ludicrous position to take.”
“Or people will talk about the Nazi-like policies of the IDF,” she continued. “You can disagree with the Israel’s policies; you can be very critical of the IDF, but to talk about Nazi-like policies is ridiculous.”
Lipstadt said that in her forthcoming book, “The Anti-Semitic Delusion: Letters to a Concerned Student,” she addresses the increase in anti-Semitism, analyzes the rise of anti-Semitism that comes from the political left and cautions Jews against being too ready to describe things as anti-Semitism.
“Jews should be careful about being too quick to label something anti-Semitism or being too quick to use analogies that compare things to the Holocaust,” she said. “That’s very dangerous.”
Lisptadt also devotes some of her time to the website Holocaust Denial on Trial (hdot.org), which systematically refutes conspiracy theories about the Holocaust. She said that this website takes the same approach she and her lawyers took during the trial.
“You say this, Mr. Irving? Well we’re going to show that that’s complete lies,” she said. “How? By following the footnotes, by exposing your illogic, by showing what you claim is completely untrue. And we want to do that as much as possible.”
Ultimately, Lipstadt hopes the film will contribute to people remembering the Holocaust.
“People say never again, never again. But it’s happened again and again,” she said, before listing the genocides of Cambodia, the Balkans and Rwanda. “I hope people would see this as kind of a warning light.”
“Denial” is playing in select theaters in the Washington area.