The court case is now 20 years old, but it still makes for fascinating theater.  Deborah Lipstadt, a Professor of Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, apparently took issue with populist historian David Irving, who denied that the Holocaust happened.  Lipstadt wrote a book called “Denying the Holocaust” (1993), in which she criticizes Mr. Irving, who in turn sued Ms.Lipstadt, and Penguine Press, for libel, in 1996.

            It seems that in England, where the trial took place, the burden of proof is on the accused to prove that it wasn't libel.  And so Ms. Lipstadt's defense was essentially based on proving that historically, the Holocaust did, in fact, happen, which means that Mr. Iving's libel suit could be dismissed.

            Ms. Lipstadt, an academic being accustomed to speaking for herself, is portrayed (by Rachel Weisz) as not being at all happy with her attorney's advice to not testify at the trial, since Mr. Irving acted as his own attorney, and he would have the opportunity to “bait” her in cross-examination. Her lead attorney, Richard Rampton (played by Tom Wilkinson) also felt that personal testimonials from concentration camp survivors would also not be helpful, since their experiences were not only highly emotional, but also, by definition, ad hominum.  They really were not in a position to know about the big picture, or anyone's experiences other than their own.

            Mr. Rampton visited Auschwitz personally, in preparing his case, and inspected it like a crime scene.  Of course, the voices of the victims have long been silenced, and the perpetrators are now dead or “senile in exile.”  And yet, we find ourselves rooting for Mr. Rampton's cautious and tactical approach to an obviously emotional issue.  Mr. Irving (Timoty Spall), for his part, is shown as a cheap sensationalist who will do anything for publicity; a sleazy self-promoter given to taunting his opponents as a way of denigrating their positions (does this rhetorical tactic sound vaguely familiar?).

            The taut courtroom drama takes center stage, as the Judge is declared the sole arbiter in the lawsuit, so then it becomes a matter of the respective attorneys persuading him.  As a whole, it doesn't have the cinematic impact of a “Schindler's List,” “The Pianist,” or even “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” much less “Son of Saul.” But evoking Auschwitz is a painful cultural memory in any context.

            My father, Harold J. Salfen, as an Army Air Corps captain in 1945, was in a radar unit that happened upon Buchenwald, after the German soldiers abandoned it but while there were still prisoners in that concentration camp who were unable to escape.  Pop couldn't talk about it for decades, but when he was older, after he learned of the “Holocast Deniers,” he made himself available to speak to schools and other groups to tell of his own eyewitness account.  His story was very personal.  And so is this issue for many people.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What would be the motivation for denying that the Holocaust happened?

2)                  Why do you think the British legal system imposes the burden of proof on the accused?

3)                  To what extent is the new “alt-right” reflect the xenophobia of the Facism of the last century?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association