Wednesday 20 March 2019

A Good Film

I stayed up late last night watching Denial on Netflix.  It is a dramatisation of the libel case the English military historian David Irving brought against Penguin Books and the American Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt. The film was very well written and had a brilliant cast: a who's who of splendid contemporary British actors.

Irving (played by Timothy Spall) objected to a book by Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weiss) that described him as a Holocaust denier, but the trial centred on Irving and the very serious question of whether or not he had intentionally suppressed or twisted what he knew to be the truth to advance his racist, anti-Semitic ideology.

A secondary theme in the film was the battle between reason and sentiment. Lipstadt wanted to present emotion-laden arguments and even allow Holocaust survivors to tell the judge their stories; her legal team didn't want to give Irving, who represented himself, a chance to humiliate Holocaust survivors in court. He had done it before. The film also contrasts the loud New Yorker Lipstadt with her old-school, very British representatives, at least one of whom was also Jewish.

Afterwards I clicked to Youtube and watched footage of the real David Irving and the real Deborah Lipstadt being grilled by journalist Jeremy Paxman. It was a bit of a shock, revealing the one injustice of the film, which was that Irving was not as ugly as Timothy Spall and Lipstadt was much older and less attractive than Rachel Weiss. I suppose there is some sort of cinematic rule that the racist baddie must be ugly and the damsel-in-distress must be beautiful, lest the audience be confused.

Nevertheless, the film was a love-letter to defeating bad arguments with good arguments and exposing lies with truth. It showed in an even-handed fashion that the mob outside the courtroom yelled abuse at both Irving and Lipstadt. This, too, provided a contrast to the careful intellectual battle being waged within the courtroom.

I doubt Denial would change the minds of Holocaust deniers, but aesthetically speaking, it is a good and thoughtful film.  

Incidentally, Holocaust denial takes some surprising forms. This morning I was astonished to see that an author named "David Horowitz", apparently to annoy Poles, had tweeted "I've been to Auschwitz, and you would hardly know a Jew died there."

Well, I went to Auschwitz in 2014, both Auschwitz 1 (which has the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign) and Auschwitz 2 (which has the railway tracks). At Auschwitz 1 sets of placards written in several languages, including English and Polish, made it clear that hundreds of thousands of Jews, among others, died there. The information is very detailed and precise, and shows where the Jews came from, both in terms of nationality and of any camps they had been transferred from.  At Auschwitz 2, there is an English-language memorial stating that over a million people, mostly Jews, died at Auschwitz.

What surprised me, and perhaps surprised Mr Horowitz, was that Auschwitz 1 was originally a small Polish army base which the invading Germans had taken over and converted into a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners. This early history of Auschwitz is also preserved and clearly explained to visitors. Thus, when you first make your way through the indoor museum, you are confronted with the photographs of a good many Polish Catholics, including young monks.

I don't see how it could be helpful to anyone to denigrate, resent or lie about the memorials of anyone who died at Auschwitz.

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