Watching 'Denial' in an Alternative Facts World

Posted 27 February 2017 about Denial.

denial

Much has been written about where Denial - the true story of the trial of Holocaust denier David Irving in 2000 - fits into the very 2016 concept of the 'alternative fact'.

The film is fraught with the frustration of an incredibly knowledgeable woman fighting a long legal battle against a man who believes (or purports to believe) unthinkable things about Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust. The woman is Deborah Lipstadt, historian, writer and academic best known for her book 'Denying the Holocaust', in which she accused David Irving, in no uncertain terms, of doing just that. He sued her for defamation, she countered that accusation, and that is where the Denial begins.

In the film we see Lipstadt sitting silently in court for months on end - lest speaking damage her case by rendering it emotional rather than historical - represented by an elite legal team who, rather uncomfortably, seem to get an adrenaline rush from the thrill of the trial. Soon-to-be disgraced historian David Irving tries to explain away the gas chambers, and deliberately misinterprets historical evidence to argue that 'The Final Solution to The Jewish Problem' was never a plan, and not ordered by Hitler. To see something so historically significant be so brazenly and callously denied is incredibly jarring. It is - in the light of Donald Trump's recent omission of any mention of the Jews in his Holocaust Memorial Day speech - a chilling watch.

At the very end of the film, Lipstadt gives a press conference which speaks a room of journalists, and indirectly, she speaks to a world beginning to get to grips with the implications of a 'post-truth' society. "Not all opinions are equal". "Elvis Presley is, unfortunately, dead". It's a neat summation of many of the issues that plague politics at the moment, especially when it comes to news channels in the US. It's becoming more apparent that there is a culture of outlets having to debate unarguable facts merely because one side of the political spectrum refuse to accept their veracity, with only the late-night comedy roster able to point out these discrepancies. It's a worrying game in which major political decisions can be made based purely on gut feeling. Remember how "this country's sick of experts"? Well, it seems the US is too.

Fox News describes itself as offering 'Opinion and Analysis on Breaking News'. Opinion. On breaking news. This is how climate change denial happens, this is how holocaust denial happens. This is the premise which 'Denial' so poignantly deconstructs. When what is felt takes priority over what is known, the David Irvings of the world become powerful. Even by its very existence, the film treads a dangerous line between outing Irving as a dangerous and morally corrupt man, and offering him a dangerous platform to relight the embers of his views to a new audience in the 21st Century.

This issue of offering a platform is something cleverly and constantly at the very foreground of the film. As the film in 2017 could be a dangerous reboot to Irving's career, as could the trial have been in the late 1990s. That Lipstadt refused to settle out of court was a controversial decision in itself. That she not testify in court, preventing it from becoming "the Holocaust on trial", as opposed to a trial of Irving's incompetency as a historian, was even more controversial. Much to Lipstadt's horror, Holocaust survivors are not asked to testify either.

It is a film in which the relationship between voice and silence is complex. Refusing to debate with Irving is Lipstadt's way of not giving his argument any validation, but it is also difficult to not read the situation as gendered. The secondary reason for her keeping quiet is her legal team's concern that she might become impassioned and deviate from fact, undermining the authority of the argument in her book. It's something we hear of time and time again - the unstable woman, silenced or sidelined, because she feels so strongly about something she has worked on (or in this case, devoted her life's research to).

Her male lawyer - albeit with the best intentions - asks her to shut up in the most official of senses; to not go on the court or media record, for 'her own good'. Lipstadt's silence is frustrating; whilst her anger and passion is seen as problematic, Irving's is seen as merely in-line with his terrible convictions. At the end of the film, she is victorious, and finally given a voice. She makes the speech about not all opinions being equal. It's a moment of triumph for truth, knowledge and integrity, and her platform skyrockets above that of the slimy, unapologetic Irving.

If anything, 'Denial' is about the power a platform can have. It applies to race, gender, environment, LGBTQ+ or any other issue where there is an oppressed minority. When we see the deliberate manipulation of fact as a reasonable alternative, we risk retracing the steps of progress.

Lucy Holt

Lucy is a writer and poet living in Sheffield.Read more posts by Lucy Holt

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