The new Rachel Weisz film “Denial” will likely be an Oscar contender. Whether or not that commends the movie to you (depending on your view of Hollywood’s award rituals), “Denial” is a well-crafted film that brings a crucial reminder to us. We need it because we’re in danger of forgetting some of the most sobering lessons of recent history.
I’m a WWII historical nut (amateur, not expert), and I recently attended a re-enactment of D-Day on the shores of Lake Erie. I met some of the few WWII veterans still alive–and they really are diminishing in number–and it occurred to me: has American culture already begun to push the memory and incidents of WWII so far away that it no longer speaks to our conscience? With the increase of anti-Semitism worldwide, our forgetfulness can have frightening consequences. (In fact, later in this review, I will share a discussion I had about this topic with Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum, the son of Pinchas Rosenbaum, a Hungarian Jew who bravely impersonated a Nazi SS officer during WWII to save scores of Jews before they were sent to concentration camps.)
“Denial” speaks to America’s conscience. It whispers–or shouts, in some scenes–“Never forget what has happened, or you might fall into the same traps.” In my town, surfers say, “Never turn your back on the ocean.” In big surf, their advice can be life-saving. The ocean has a way of surprising people with its power. If you’re not paying attention to it, the big swells that come out of nowhere can hurt you or worse. “Denial” gives similar advice: never turn your back on history. If, as a nation, we stop paying any heed to history, we will not see the next tidal wave it sends our way. (And God have mercy on us if that happens.)
Before I get into the details of my review, here is a summary of the film’s plot, and the actors involved, from a recent press release:
Based on the acclaimed book Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, DENIAL recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s (Academy Award® winner Rachel Weisz) legal battle for historical truth against David Irving (Cannes Award winner Timothy Spall), who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier. In the English legal system, the burden of proof is on the accused, therefore it was up to Lipstadt and her legal team led by Richard Rampton (two-time Academy Award® nominee Tom Wilkinson) to prove the essential truth that the Holocaust occurred.The film is directed by Emmy Award® winner Mick Jackson (“Temple Grandin”) and adapted for the screen by BAFTA and Academy Award® nominated writer David Hare (“The Reader”). Producers are Gary Foster and Russ Krasnoff.
Also, if you haven’t read my reviews before, here is how my weird structure works:
- If the movie is good, I talk about why the movie works so well as a form of entertainment and why it’s worth buying a movie ticket for a night out.
- I dive into the worldview and deeper layers to explore what this film is saying or perhaps look into discussion-worthy topics that might be related to the film.
- I conclude with an “application” section. I believe movies are meant for more than just disposable consumption, but they’re things we can take with us to make our lives better.
You might say this style of film review is based loosely on the inductive method of study: observe, interpret, and apply.
(Observations) Entertainment Value and Film Craft
I’ll start with the cast. It’s a brilliant cast with the right chemistry. I’ve always enjoyed Rachel Weisz and how relatable she is in the way she inhabits her characters, and this might be one of the best roles of her career. Of course, any film with Tom Wilkinson I am jumping at the bit to see. And the more I see Timothy Spall in films the more I begin to feel the same way about his work. Andrew Scott also pulls off his role very well as he balances precariously between making us like and dislike his character as Lipstadt progresses through the trial and encounters a slightly bullying, male-dominated legal team. And Alex Jennings as the judge added a great bureaucratic poker face to all of the court room scenes so that you couldn’t tell which side was winning.
What really worked, however, was the way the script–and the brilliant execution of the script–yanked you hard into the maddening frustration that Deborah Lipstadt wrestled with as she found herself being forced to defend the historical reality of the Holocaust. It was impossible not to feel deep sympathy with every emotion that passed through her face. This meant that the audience was hanging on every word that was spoken to see what would happen next. The screenplay also did a superb job of walking you through the actual implications of someone attempting to put the Holocaust on trial.
(Interpretation) Worldviews and Deeper Layers of Meaning: What Does ‘Denial’ Say about Free Speech and the Dark Side of ‘Thought Crimes’ and ‘Hate Speech’?
What’s interesting about “Denial” is that it cuts both ways. Yes, it exposes the ludicrous, monstrous, reckless hatred that lurks behind Holocaust denial. But it also has some pretty strong words for those in Western culture (and elsewhere beyond the West) who have abandoned the preservation of free speech. In one scene, Deborah Lipstadt says that freedom of speech is essential. She says that she would defend David Irving’s right to free speech even if he does say awful things about people groups and even denies the Holocaust. She adds to that comment, however, that “not all opinions are equal” and that if someone lies, as Irving did, they should be held accountable.
In general, this basic truth about free speech is something else that our culture seems to be forgetting: it is not a good idea to take away someone’s freedom of speech simplify because you disagree with what that person is saying or because they are saying something offensive. The prosecution of dialogue in society using “hate speech” laws has a dark side. If you take away their free speech and use political power to create laws that put that person in prison for saying things you don’t like, you’ve created Frankenstein’s monster, and the monster might turn on you someday. You’ve created the tyranny of “thought police,” and you’ve not only destroyed the freedom of your opponent, you’ve destroyed your own freedom. Sure, the idea of forcibly silencing those whose opinions disgust you might seem appealing to some people–but only as long as “their side” is in charge. What if someone else comes to power who doesn’t especially care for the things the other side says? By creating the thought police, you’ve built the bars for your future prison. “Denial,” in a subtle way, brings home the whole point of that free speech mechanism: by protecting and guaranteeing the free speech of everyone, you protect your own free speech.
There’s more though. The film unintentionally raises some interesting peripheral questions. Lipstadt’s comment in the film, “not all opinions are equal,” presents a problem: If you say, “not all opinions are equal,” that presumes an absolute standard by which we’re evaluating opinions. Who then decides which ones are the righteous opinions and which ones are wicked? Is it whoever is in power at the time? Or does the universal definition of what is deemed good and evil come from an objective source independent from all human opinion (say, an extra-dimensional, infinite Being who exists apart from humanity–i.e. God)?
Is a Worldview that Embraces Objective Morality Necessary to Preserve Free Speech?
I would argue that it does, assuming the worldview that embraces objective morality is itself not trying to subjugate others in other ways. Any worldview can be weaponized. But I would argue that the belief in absolute truth is an essential ingredient for creating a society that preserves free speech. This is one reason, perhaps, that we’re seeing a culture rising up in America that does not want free speech. When we abandon our belief in absolute truth or an objective ideal that transcends human opinion, eventually the only way to “win” an argument is to become more powerful than your opponent and silence them. Without objective morality, we inevitably turn to “might makes right.”
We see a subtle form of this happening in higher education. College campuses have become political power centers looking to create soldiers, not free-thinkers. A side-effect of this: colleges have become daycare facilities where professors are paid to protect students from differing opinions and the unpleasant emotion of being offended; and professors, understandably, are now afraid to teach. Students are being spared from the hard work of facing people who offend them and disagree with them. It really is hard work to face someone like David Irving, as Deborah Lipstadt and her tireless legal team had to do. It took an extraordinary amount of work to refine their argument, gather objective evidence as proof, and present in a way that revealed inaccuracies in Irving’s claims. Students aren’t being taught to allow others to speak freely, and then confront them with rigorous, rational argument. Instead of learning how to think for themselves, students are learning to be policed (and sheltered) incessantly. Free speech no longer exists in these contexts. It’s a dangerous, slippery slope.
Yet our modern thinking tries to have it both ways. We no longer believe in objective, absolute moral codes that exist independently from human opinion, but then we say, “Not all opinions are equal,” a claim that requires an objective, absolute moral code to be true.
“Denial,” to be clear, doesn’t get into any of the above. But the film nimbly steps through Lipstadt’s journey in a way that brings all these kinds of questions to mind. The movie makes you think, in other words.
Wandering Off-Topic: Using the Word ‘Denier’ to Bully Others
In the final scene of the film, Lipstadt makes a comment stating that the melting of the polar icecaps (i.e. a central facet of the belief in man-made global warming) is an irrefutable fact. It’s slipped in subtly with other examples of irrefutable facts, such as “Elvis is dead.”
Of course, whether or not the claims of global warming activists are true is obviously not the subject of the film or this review. But the casual mentioning of global warming in a movie about a Holocaust denier reminded me of something troubling I’ve seen: some of those who believe in the crisis of man-made global warming have developed a habit in recent years of calling anyone a “denier” who dares question their claims and predictions. To be clear, this film is not doing that. This film has nothing to do with that topic. It is not reapplying the term “denier” in that way. As the header says, this is off-topic. I’m simply noting that the off-the-cuff mentioning of global warming in the final scene reminded me of the weird connection that now exists between the two topics. Until recently, the word “denier” had always been associated exclusively with the Holocaust. Now people are trying to repurpose the word “denier” and use it as an attack on those who express doubt about the claims concerning man-made global warming. The insinuation, the subtle equivalence between the two, is an example of the problems explored above. It’s bullying, pure and simple, and the tactic chills my blood. While there really are Holocaust deniers in the world, as hard it is to believe, we should be very careful about repurposing such a dark period of history for contemporary political interests that, in many ways, are vastly different than something like the Holocaust. It is a ruthlessly aggressive strategy. In our culture, we now see people who disagree with us as enemy combatants to be crushed, not human beings who have differing viewpoints that should be engaged in civil discourse.
To be clear, I’m not trying to pick on one side of our culture’s political rift. The global warming connection is just one example. I see conservatives treating liberals this way, and I see liberals treating conservatives this way. Both sides are behaving very poorly, and both sides are lusting for more and more power with the goal of using that power to shut down the opposition instead of engaging others in patient give-and-take conversation. It’s nauseating. No wonder so many Americans are sick and tired of our nation’s politicians, on both sides of the aisle.
The Troubling Rise of Anti-Semitism: How Do We Stop It?
Changing gears: a major topic in this film–certainly the central theme–is the virulent effects of anti-Semitism. This makes the film timely. The rise of anti-Semitism in recent years, especially in Europe, has been so noticeable that major news outlets have covered it, including this article from CNN. In 2014, I had the chance to interview Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum, the son of WWII hero Pinchas Rosenbaum, who impersonated a Nazi officer to save Jews from being sent to concentration camps. When I asked Rabbi Rosenbaum how we should fight against anti-Semitism, he had an interesting response:
Anti-Semitism is a disease. It is often transmitted from one generation to another and is also very catching! Since most of the time anti-Semitism is irrational, I think one can fight it by pointing out how illogical and plain stupid anti-Semitic remarks and behavior can be. If we keep doing it, it might really help!
He felt the battle should be fought in the arena of public discourse. In other words, allow free speech, allow people to say what they really believe, no matter how much it offends us. But that doesn’t mean we don’t stand up for our own beliefs and do our best to make persuasive arguments. His response, in a nutshell, captures Lipstadt’s attitude toward the libel case from David Irving. She didn’t attack free speech, but she confronted the claims of Irving and did her best to refute the errors and dishonesty in his claims in the public square without advocating for the destruction of his free speech.
Conclusion (and Application): ‘Denial’ is Both Deeply Moving and Thought-Provoking
When a movie can provoke rambling tangential thoughts like the ones above–whether you agree with those thoughts or not–you know it’s a good movie. “Denial” reminds us to never turn our back on history. We must remember the awful things that have happened. We can’t let them fade from our conscience. At the same time, we must not allow our noble intentions, as passionate as they may be, pull us into ugly shortcuts. We must still treat others as we wish to be treated. We must not give in to the temptation to rely on power, bullying, and the silencing of our opponents to “win” the argument. Our culture must stop being so politically power hungry and cutthroat toward one another. Politics can’t solve all of our ills, and external laws passed in legislations cannot transform the inward reality of a person’s heart. A respectful, honest, face-to-face conversation with someone on a park bench does a better job of that, frankly–especially when you have a humble attitude and a quick-to-listen-slow-to-speak approach. The love of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the mix doesn’t hurt either. Bottom-line: we must insist on honest public discourse and intellectual debate, both of which require the preservation of free speech, even if that approach doesn’t always produce the instant results or the dominating political power that so many people crave.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we lie down and let people roll over us either. Deborah Lipstadt was a lion and a great example. We should fight for what we believe as she did, but we should do it the right way.
“Denial” was a powerful reminder of all these essential principles.
You can find out more about the film at these links:
Want to read more reviews like this one? Sign up for our email alerts and get notified when we post a new review.
Content advisory for this film…
Note: This film is rated PG-13. The parental guidance content advisory is written from a Christian worldview. I am a person of faith with orthodox Christian beliefs like those expressed in “The Everlasting Man” by G. K. Chesterton, “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis, and “The Pursuit of God” by A. W. Tozer. That being said, I do not believe that the depiction of evil, even graphic depictions of evil or negative themes in films, is in itself always immoral. I believe it depends on the context and the worldview behind the film’s depiction of evil. All that being said, I try to report the content that gives the film its rating so that you can make an informed decision about viewing the film. Some people need to know detailed information about the content, some do not, in order to make a decision. I try to provide enough detail to give you a sense of the nature of the content. If you need more detail to make a better decision, I recommend visiting PluggedIn.com, as they provide extremely detailed reports of a movie’s content.
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality: A racist/sexist character talks about the breasts and sexual attractiveness of women of certain races.
Violence/Gore/Scary/Disturbing Content: For a brief moment, we see Holocaust victims clawing at the glass from inside a gas chamber while they are being gassed. Although it is brief, it is disturbing and frightening (as it should be). This is the only flashback of the Holocaust, so “Denial” is surprisingly not as graphically violent as other films that have the Holocaust as a central topic. A main character in the film is a Holocaust denier who is a virulent racist, and the film repeats some of his terrible racist comments/jokes. Characters visit the concentration camp Auschwitz in the dead of winter, and it is an emotionally difficult, mournful scene.
Language: One f-word, a few other milder obscenities (b-word, s-word, etc). Use of God’s name.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: Characters are seen drinking alcohol privately and in public.