Denial – A Movie Review Part II
When Clinton ended her speech at the Catholic dinner yesterday evening, she recalled her history of empathy for and work with women and children. There is no indication that Trump has any real self-understanding of his serial and compulsive lying. His lying and abusive behaviour are also connected with his absence of empathy for the people taken in by those lies. There is no indication that he ever feels guilty about what he says. He doesn’t need to be provoked to tell a lie and when challenged about the lie, he digs deeper and reinforces the lie instead of backing off. And, as demonstrated in the David Irving trail, he knowingly, willingly and intentionally lies.
Given the state of affairs in the United States where an outright pathological liar can win the primaries and become the Republican candidate, a Sadat stance of hope replacing cynicism is just not on. Further, The barrister and solicitors in Denial both demonstrated that when dealing with pathological liars the best response is to ignore them and not even shake their hand when it is proffered. There is no obligation to be civil to a pathological liar, and when Tom Wilkinson said his strategy was to ignore Irving altogether and engage with him only to get under his skin so he can inflict more and more wounds on himself. Most of all, the movie, Denial, demonstrated the interdependence of justice and truth pursued, not because of principle, but o win, and to do so decisively in a pragmatic way. Since the liar is pathological, it is useless to engage him but it is perfectly legitimate to bait him and trick him into even more damaging utterances.
In 18 days, the election will be over. Hillary Clinton will win by a significant margin. It has been a very long and stressful period so we can look forward to a sigh of relief. But we should want more. We should want to celebrate. By Tuesday evening, we Jews will end the seemingly interminable series of holidays tumbling one after another that began with Rosh Hashana.to inaugurate the new year. Ten days later, we own up to our shortcomings on Yom Kippur and apologize to God and to our fellow humans whom we have hurt deliberately or unintentionally. Now we are in the middle of Succoth, a harvest feast that began five days after the Yom Kippur fast day. On Sunday night, we have another holiday, Shemini Atzeret, a time to tarry just before the finale, the period we are in before the lection in the U.S. either upholds the constitution or sets the stage for its dismemberment on 8th November. On Monday evening, Jews begin to celebrate Simchat Torah honouring the “constitution of the Jews, their bible.
In the American civic religion, it is why the peaceful transition of power and acceptance of the election results are integral to America and any democracy. All must pledge adherence to the rule of law and the transfer of power in accord with the votes of the people. But what happens if the individual who is elected. These are important moments in the lifecycle of a nation and when Donald Trump insists he will hold us all in suspense at whether he accepts the results, unless, of course, he wins.
This shabat we will read chapter 33 of the Torah where God promises to reveal what goodness is and “be gracious – not to anyone – but only “to whom I will be gracious” and to be compassionate to whom I will be compassionate. (verse 19) Donald Trump has indicated no sign that one ought to be gracious or empathetic whit him, since there is little evidence he has empathy and even less that civility and grace are inherent. This is a fundamental lesson also conveyed in the movie.
In the final analysis, both in the American election and in the movie, Denial, truth is fundamental to history as it unfolds and to history as it is recorded. But truth is never delivered as a matter of principle but as a pragmatic prerequisite for sustaining the life of a nation. If someone insists the elction is rigged, if someone insists that the Holocaust is a myth perpetuated by Jews to extract money from the German government, then they attack the foundations of a civil society and not just a political order. Lipstadt was right not to debate facts. And the movie first begins with David Irving propagating his lies and then the scene where Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt takes the position of a Holocaust denier as a teaching device for her students and outlines the four telltale signs of a Holocaust denier, questioning the systematic murder of Jews and the existence of a crematorium, questioning the number of Jews killed, depicting the Holocaust as a myth and explaining the myth as motivated by Jewish greed. Then the two sides clash when David Irving crashes a public lecture by Deborah Lipstadt, challenges her to debate him and waves a thousand dollars in the air offering it as a reward to anyone who can provide even a sliver of evidence connecting Hitler to the Holocaust as we recall Lipstadt’s lesson than there is no direct record of the Holocaust itself.
We live in an age of conspiracy theories and challenges to solid science. Climate change is a myth. The Jews planted the bombs in 2011 in the Trade centre and warned all Jews to no show up for work that day, Muslims danced in the streets of New Jersey when the planes crashed into the Trade Centre, vaccines cause autism. This situation is not helped by false equivalences, when CNN puts up two apologists for lies as surrogates of Donald Trump against two reputable Democrats who try to tell the truth and be analytical. We live in an increasingly postmodern world where truth as the foundation of society has been converted into absolute relativism where every thought is but a subjective opinion, an internet world where crazies and nut cases find each other, especially when led by a billionaire nutbar. When the birther issue conspiracy played itself out, the seeds are already being planted to delegitimize his successor.
As Deborah Lipstadt has written, there are truth, opinions and lies. The deliberate purveyors of lies, like Donald Trump and David Irving, the best way to proceed is NOT to debate him but to bait him and appeal to his ego so he blows himself up. Civility and courtesy demand respect. But there are limits. Pathological liars who have power deserve only disdain. They deserve the contempt Richard Rampton expressed when he refused to shake David Irving’s proferred hand at the end of the trial. But ina addition to outright lies which I have cited, falshoos are spreac by quoting out of context. On Kristallnacht, Hitler evidently did issue an order to stop the madness of burning Jewish synagogues, shops and homes, not, however, because he though such actions were wrong, but because he had been informed that the fires were getting out of control and burning down city blocks.
There is an interesting scene that drifts off into left field in the film when two of the subordinates on the legal team get into a discussion as the male says, to the effect, “Isn’t it enough? Why do we have to keep talking about the Holocaust? Why can’t we get on with just living? This is a belief even more pernicious than the outright liar. Because it undermines like a leaking water pipe from below. His girlfriend rebukes him, too politely, by insisting that if you want to preserve truth, you must fight lies. And you must remember. But the total focus on outright liars and not on the perniciousness
That is the central truth of the Torah which tells the story of many flawed Jews, including Moses. Thank goodness for Deborah Lipstadt who, in spite of her individualism, kept her bonds with that unassailable conviction at the same time as she went along, initially very reluctantly, with the legal team’s pragmatism. Denial is a great film where it was even harder to watch Tom Wilkinson walk around Auschwitz as a memorial site than to see a concentration camp recreated on film as an active killing machine. There is enormous truth in silence and reverence. Denial is also subtle and nuanced and avoids sinking into stereotypes or efforts at reinforcement by showing pictures and videos of the Holocaust. This is a trail picture and Andrew Scott who plays the famous British solicitor, Anthony Julius who was Diana’s divorce lawyer who has a reputation as having a self-serving ego but proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is totally devoted to destroying the credibility of David Irving who is left as the figure standing alone on a branch that he has almost sawn through and Listadt has been saved from disaster by the excellent teamwork of a of a large number of experts and lawyers, researchers and supporters.
There is another scene in the film that bothered me other than the felt need to include the scene of the pernicious young lawyer who wants everyone to get beyond the Holocaust and leave it behind. It is a scene of Deborah Libstadt with the elite of British wealth as she tries to raise money for her defence to spread the economic support widely instead of relying on one or a few large donors. The spokesperson of the group has the effrontery to suggest that the British Jews can live with David Irving so why does she not just settle the case and go back to America. Anthony Julius is just an egocentric self-serving solicitor who is only interested in fame. British Jewish elites are portrayed as sellouts of truth whreas British gentiles emerge as the great defenders.
I wrote most of this and then read a number of reviews. I was surprised to learn that everyone was not blown away by the movie. A few critics were even critical. I want to examine that review to try to explicate the characteristics of a review that is bad, not because the target is bad but because the reviewer is bad. One wrote that patches of the film are so ludicrously hammy, it (the movie) plays like one of those unbearably corny fake films teased at the beginning of Tropic Thunder.” But the scenes are not cited to allow you to falsify the judgment and you feel that the writer is driven more by an effort to be clever and a struggle to comprehend the film and even expose some of its weaknesses.
But the stupidest sentences support the notion that Hare agrees with the Jewish elite that Julius was only defending Lipstadt for his own glory and that, “Hare makes the parallels to the media treatment of Donald Trump during the lection ring loud and clear.” But only to a viewer who is totally deaf. There is a connection clearly between Donald Trump and David Irving, but other than seeing the claque of journalists at the entrance of the trial, no attention is paid at all to how the media covered the trial.
The review I found most appalling was written by Owen Gleiberman, chief film critic for Variety. (11.09.16) He claimed that this courtroom drama was “too muddled to bring its issues to life” and was, “about nothing so much as the perverse, confounding eccentricities of the British legal system” Balderdash! It was not an intellectual riveting thriller. But how could it be when any reasonable well-read viewer already knew the outcome. The challenge was to develop the dramatic line that did not depend on leading up to the conclusion. And it does not.
Rather than being a clockwork system where the verdict can be deduced from the process, this drama builds by concentrating on how the team members interact and the tensions between and among them. The film is NOT a puzzle so the reviewer missed the whole point. It is a film about how people with different interests, different points of view, and different priorities learn to work together to accomplish a valiant task beyond the rach of any one of them. David Irving is the foil in the background, the then celebrated and rich British writer who made his money on Holocaust denial. He is there as a menace standing alone unless addressing his adoring followers and the press. The story is about empathy and human interaction and the need for compromise, including breaking a promise to a survivor to ensure her voice was heard. There is a huge difference between a group of people who bond together to ensure that truth beats a lie and those who bond together on to worship and idolize a lie. It is not that the film is awkward and slipshod is awkward but the review because the reviewer never “got” the film.
The reviewer writes, “He(Julius) refuses to put any Holocaust survivors on the stand, because he says that they’ll be “humiliated” — and the first sign that the movie is heading off the tracks is that Hare’s script barely clarifies what that means. Is Julius worried about the well-being of the witnesses? (He needn’t be.) Or is he worried that their testimony won’t play? (Why wouldn’t it?) But the script clearly articulates why and how they will be humiliated by Irving as a master grandstander who can provoke and prod and build on miniscule failures of memory. He needed to be worried about the well-being of the witnesses, and rightly so. He was worried that their testimony would not play if Irving got “under their skin.” Testimony will not play unless it is both solid and unanswerable. But Irving is very capable of offering supposed answers and discomfiting witnesses.
Just because Lipstadt doesn’t testify does not mean that she is a “passive agent in her own story” because she is not telling her own story, for the core story is about the interplay of a team and how a team works, about the compromises that must be made to ensure that justice and the pursuit of truth work together. But some film viewers are blind as well as deaf. For a film about self-denial to attack denial is not just a clever trick of a playwright but central to the working of politics as Abe Lincoln argued.