Denial unmasks the historical truth of the Holocaust

”Historians can debate how the Holocaust took place, but the fact is, the Holocaust happened.”

An American professor finds herself the defendant in a high-profile British libel trial that would impact the way the history of the Holocaust is told in Denial, a taut courtroom drama based on one of the most significant international legal cases in recent memory.

A powerful story about one woman’s relentless efforts to establish justice and remind the world about the tragedies of the Holocaust, Denial is a gripping, inspirational real-life account based on Deborah E. Lipstadt’s book Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, and adapted for the big screen by esteemed playwright David Hare.


Tom Wilkinson plays Lipstadt’s quietly fierce, Scottishborn barrister Richard Rampton. Wilkinson was intrigued by Denial’s unusual story and its avoidance of what he calls the clichés of genre filmmaking. “The central story is about a fish out of water,” he says. “There are huge differences between the cultures, not only British vs. American, but also Jewish culture. Deborah Lipstadt was under tremendous pressure from survivors of the Holocaust who wanted the world to hear them speak. She also wanted to have her say in court. Yet her rather cool British lawyers saying, ‘No, you can’t. Once you get in there, you’ll get pulled to pieces.’” “And that’s essentially the core,” he continues. “He’s a Holocaust denier, for heaven’s sake. If that guy’s ever going to win a suit, then what does it say for any sort of justice? The emphasis in the movie will be on the sense of isolation that she feels in the context of this rather bizarre court case.”

Denial recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s (Oscar winner Rachel Weisz) legal battle for historical truth against David Irving (Timothy Spall), who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier. In the English legal system, in cases of libel, the burden of proof is on the defendant, therefore it was up to Lipstadt and her legal team led by Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson), to prove the essential truth that the Holocaust occurred.

Lipstadt believes the film provides an opportunity for her to take her life’s work another step forward. “I’d like people to understand that the Holocaust is the best documented genocide in the world. There is no denying it. You can debate aspects of it – why it happened, how it happened, but not the fact that it happened. It is incontrovertible fact. It can’t be debated. And that’s not being closed-minded, it’s acknowledging the truth.”

Denial producers Gary Foster and Russ Krasnoff first became aware of Deborah Lipstadt and her work some eight years ago. “Our kids, who are the same age, were applying to colleges,” Krasnoff recalls. “I was researching Emory University in Atlanta, where Deborah is professor of modern Jewish history and studies. The university had just announced a $1 million grant to translate portions of her Emory-based website, HDOT: Holocaust Denial on Trial (, which archives all materials from her trial into Farsi, Arabic, Russian and Turkish. “I thought it was amazing that a university would do this and I wanted to know more about her.”

This inspired Krasnoff to get a copy of Lipstadt’s book, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial [previously published as History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier], an account of the libel case brought against her by David Irving. Irving’s lawsuit against Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, asserted that the professor had committed libel against him. Lipstadt’s book was a first-hand account of the trial.

“In addition to being an important topic, it was wonderful storytelling,” he continues. “Gary and I thought it would make a great movie.”

Some preliminary research revealed that Holocaust denial was much more widespread than the producers had realized. It was espoused by several prominent voices in the U.S. and Europe, as well as throughout the Middle East — most notably by thenpresident of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“It was all opinion turned into fact,” Foster says. “You can have a conviction, a passion, a belief — but that doesn’t make it a fact. That was a big part of our decision to make the film and to stay with it for the eight years it took to get it to the screen.”

In 2008, while Foster and Krasnoff were making the film The Soloist in Los Angeles, Participant Media’s Jeff Skoll and Jonathan King visited the set during shooting on the city’s Skid Row. When Skoll and King learned about the producers’ idea for a movie chronicling the Lipstadt trial, they jumped at the chance to be a part of it. “They bought the project on the spot,” Foster recalls. “Participant’s mission is to create entertainment that inspires and compels social change. This story fit perfectly, but it took some time to find just the right team to put it together.”

By 2012, Foster and Krasnoff were developing another film, My Old Lady, in partnership with BBC Films. Christine Langan, former head of BBC Films, suggested Foster and Krasnoff speak with acclaimed playwright and Academy Award®-nominated screenwriter David Hare about adapting the book into a feature film.


Tom Wilkinson and Rachel Weisz

David Hare the ideal writer to adapt the book

Langan had worked with Hare on a trilogy of television films about MI5 and believed he would be the ideal writer for this story.

David Hare's plays and screenplays include Plenty, Skylight, The Blue Room, The Hours and Stuff Happens.

DAVID HARE (Writer) is a playwright and filmmaker. For the silver screen he wrote Wetherby, Damage, The Hours and The Reader. Television credits include “Page Eight,” “Saigon: Year of the Cat,” “Dreams of Leaving,” “Licking Hitler,” “Turks & Caicos” and “Salting the Battlefield.” He has written more than 30 stage plays including “Plenty,” “Pravda” (with Howard Brenton), “The Secret Rapture,” “Racing Demon,” “Skylight,” “Amy’s View,” “The Blue Room,” “Via Dolorosa,” “Stuff Happens,” “South Downs,” “The Absence of War,” “The Judas Kiss” and “The Moderate Soprano.” In 1997 the French government honored Hare as an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 1998 the British knighted him for services to the theater.

“Stories like this one aren’t the specialty of mainstream American cinema any more,” says Hare. “Spotlight was an exception, but it’s an unusual beast among American films. They were convinced such a factual political drama needed the BBC’s sensibility.” Hare, who received an Oscar® nomination for his adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, which revolves around a Nazi war-crimes trial, says he didn’t immediately recognize the historical significance of Lipstadt’s case.“I didn’t feel the weight of that until one day late on, when I had to write some dialogue spoken at Auschwitz. For the first time, I felt I had a special responsibility to the subject.”

It was the idea of defending objective historical truth that initially intrigued Hare enough to agree to tackle the project. “That meant I had to be historically accurate myself, so that enemies of the film, the people who agree with David Irving, couldn’t accuse me of distorting the record.”

To do so, Hare sifted through pages and pages of official records to document the courtroom scenes. “It took me four or five hours to read a single day in court,” he says. “So you can imagine my initial reaction: Have I really got to read 40 days of trial? I couldn’t fake drama in the courtroom that didn’t happen.”

In fact, there was no need to fabricate dramatic moments. All of the dialogue from the courtroom scenes was taken verbatim from the official record.

Hare also points to a reallife moment depicted early in the film in which Irving unexpectedly appears at a lecture given by Lipstadt in Atlanta and disrupts her speech.

“He started waving $1,000 above his head and saying, ‘I’ll give it to anyone who can prove Hitler ordered the killing of the Jews!’ That became a wonderfully dramatic opening to a film. The real mystery for me is why Deborah Lipstadt was chosen by David Irving in the first place. Why did he pick on her?” While he believes that decision reveals a great deal about Irving, Hare says he wasn’t interested in writing “a portrait of an anti-Semite.”

“The film is not about Irving’s psychology. He is seen almost exclusively from Deborah’s point of view, so I have no right to speculate or try to explain Irving. He simply behaves in the extraordinary manner he did throughout the trial and I offer no explanation. I’m not qualified to go into his psychology. There’s no ‘behind-the-scenes’ with him. There’s only information that is on the public record.”

Director Mick Jackson tackles Denial

British-born filmmaker Mick Jackson was chosen to direct Denial on the strength of an extensive résumé that includes major box-office hits (The Bodyguard), an Emmy®-winning TV movie (“Temple Grandin”), and a string of highly regarded documentaries and dramas for the BBC and Britain’s Channel 4.

DENIAL, Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (left), Director Mick Jackson (cap), on set, 2016. Ph: Laurie Sparham /© Bleecker Street Media

MICK JACKSON (Director) is a British film and television director and producer. He is perhaps best known for The Bodyguard, starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, which was nominated for several MTV Movie Awards and became the second-highestgrossing film worldwide in 1992. His other feature credits include Volcano, The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, Clean Slate, L.A. Story and Chattahoochee. More recently Jackson has turned his attention to television, directing the highly acclaimed 2010 HBO movie “Temple Grandin,” for which he and Claire Danes won Emmys. Jackson also shared in the telefilm’s DGA Award (his fourth) and Peabody Award. The director was previously Emmy nominated for the Lifetime movie “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter,” starring Emily Watson; HBO’s “Live From Baghdad” (2002), starring Michael Keaton; and “Indictment: The McMartin Trial” (1995), with James Woods. He is also a three-time BAFTA TV Award winner, for “A Very British Coup,” “The Race for the Double Helix” and “Threads.” Other small-screen credits include the miniseries “Covert One: The Hades Factor” and telefilms “Screen Two: Double Image” and “Tuesdays With Morrie.” Jackson has directed a number of TV documentaries, including “The Age of Uncertainty” and “The Ascent of Man,” on which he worked alongside Sir David Attenborough and won a Peabody Award.


“I started out in documentaries,” says Jackson. “I have a feeling for what’s real and I like shooting in that style. I try to shoot as much hand-held as I can and keep things very fluid. Deborah’s book was perfect for me. I loved her attention to the smallest details, like who sat where in the courtroom or the color of Richard Rampton’s tie.”

The director was also drawn to the timeliness of the film’s subject matter.

“We live in an age of unreason and lies, an age of violent outrages and all kinds of assaults on the truth,” says Jackson, who adds that he had a more personal reason for taking on the project. “When I was a very young director at the BBC, I worked on a landmark series of documentaries called ‘The Ascent of Man.’ We shot an episode at Auschwitz. Just being there touched me in a profound way. When this script came my way, I thought, ‘I have to do that.’”

According to the director, the film’s title has a double meaning. “To win this case, which is about Holocaust denial, Deborah will have to deny herself the glory of standing up in court and speaking to this monster,” he says. “That act of self-denial is her only hope of beating Irving’s charges.”

Jackson compares the film to a piece of music with repeated themes that stand on their own, but are also woven together in counterpoint. One thread is the progress of the trial and the anticipation of its outcome. Another is the human story of Lipstadt and her legal team.

“We see through Deborah’s eyes, with all her media savvy, that there are two trials here: the one in the courtroom and the one in the court of public opinion.”

Lipstadt involved during filming

Lipstadt was closely involved with the making of the film from the time her book was first optioned, providing the filmmakers with access to her life and insights into her experience. “I spent two days with Rachel Weisz and we talked afterwards on the phone,” she recalls. “I’d never met David Hare, but I knew his work. I’d seen The Reader and The Hours. David spent two or three days in Atlanta, meeting me, shadowing me, coming to my classes, even walking around my home. Then he shared some of the script and I offered comments.”

Portrait of actress and film director Judith Malina, New York, New York, 1999. (Photo by Chris Felver/Getty Images)

Rachel Weisz, left, and author Deborah E. Lipstadt on the set of their film “Denial.”

When the crucial courtroom scenes were filmed in London, Lipstadt visited the set, looking on as her own past unfolded on a soundstage. It was a vivid reminder of how isolated she felt when she arrived in London for the trial. Her A-list legal team had devised a defense strategy that shocked her — she would not testify in court, nor would they call Holocaust survivors to testify.

“We were, as they say, divided by a common language,” she says. “Lawyers talk in shorthand. I felt like a deer in headlights, not because of Irving, but because of the situation. I was in a foreign country, in a foreign arena.”

Lipstadt was unfamiliar with Britain’s two-tiered legal system and the strict division of labor between barristers and solicitors. Solicitors, like Anthony Julius, formulate strategy, undertake negotiations and draft legal documents.

While barristers, like Richard Rampton, provide specialized legal advice and represent individuals and organizations in court. In addition, Lipstadt was shocked to learn, the burden of proof in a British libel case lies with the defendant.

The basic American legal tenet of “innocent until proven guilty” is reversed. The historian agrees with Hare’s description of her as “a fish out of water” during the preparation and the trial.

“It’s not how I think of myself,” she says. “But it’s not untrue. For the sake of a dramatic arc, David emphasized my relationship with the lawyers. I had to learn to trust those lawyers, keep quiet and have faith in the process.”

Although she initially doubted her legal team’s strategy, she soon learned they had her best interests at heart.

“Anthony offered to do this pro bono because Irving needed to be fought. He was willing to fight as if it were the biggest commercial case to ever come across his desk. He’d already represented Princess Diana against the House of Windsor in her divorce and settled that. Now he talks about this as one of his most important cases.”

The trial took place almost 20 years ago, so reliving it on a film set had a surreal quality for Lipstadt.

“Some moments approximate the truth almost exactly. I also worked closely with Rachel, who is unbelievable — such a professional! I’m blown away by her. But still there’s something disorienting about it all. She’s even wearing some of my clothes — including scarves that belong to me. The costume department looked at some pictures of me from that time, and I told them I still had some of those clothes. Rachel looks different than me, but I do love that they tried to approximate the hair to a certain extent.”

Lipstadt calls the trial “a defining moment” in her life.

“It didn’t change me or what I had to say. It changed how people listen to me. It gave me a hearing I hadn’t had before. Suddenly what I had to say had more clout, more gravitas because I’d successfully faced down David Irving.”

At the time, she was advised by many not to fight the charges. “I was told by some academics that I was wasting my time,”

Lipstadt recalls. “Some of the leaders of the British Jewish community felt that whatever happened, he’d win. But if I hadn’t fought, then I would have surely lost. It would have become illegal to call the world’s leading Holocaust denier what he is. That would have been a terrible thing that legitimized all Holocaust deniers. In the end, all those people who had said I shouldn’t have fought came around.” In Hare’s opinion, Lipstadt behaved with extreme fortitude throughout the lengthy ordeal. “When somebody sues you for libel, it’s a long business,” the writer says.

“From start to finish, it took seven years. I’m sure she experienced many dark nights of the soul. But not a word of hers was proved to be inaccurate. And never during that time did she say anything inappropriate or out of order. She behaved with complete integrity.”

Lipstadt faced a particularly insidious adversary in David Irving, says Hare, because he gave anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial a respectable face. “Irving dressed like an English gentleman. He lived in Mayfair. John Keegan, an extremely distinguished military historian, said that David Irving was a first-rate historian who happened to take Hitler’s point of view and that there was as significant historical value in looking at history from the side of the loser.”

In retrospect, Lipstadt says, the point of the trial was not to crush David Irving, but to expose a destructive lie that he and others like him were perpetrating.

“This trial has importance over and above and beyond itself. In an age of relativism, kids grow up thinking, ‘it must be true, I saw it on the Internet.’ But not everything can be true. There are not two sides to every issue. My students often believe everybody has a right to their opinion, but facts are facts. Historians can debate how the Holocaust took place, but the fact is, the Holocaust happened.”

Lipstadt believes the film provides an opportunity for her to take her life’s work another step forward. “I’d like people to understand that the Holocaust is the best documented genocide in the world. There is no denying it. You can debate aspects of it – why it happened, how it happened, but not the fact that it happened. It is incontrovertible fact. It can’t be debated. And that’s not being closed-minded, it’s acknowledging the truth.”

According to Jackson, the trial has made a lasting difference in the world. “If Deborah Lipstadt had lost, it would have had a chilling effect on every other similar case,” he says. “All kinds of things that were controversial would have been very difficult to litigate, because people would have been afraid of losing. As Richard Rampton said after the verdict, it won’t bring any of them back. But now, no reasonable historian can ever doubt that the Holocaust took place.”