Deborah Lipstadt: ‘We made David Irving look ridiculous’
- Credit: Archant
Famous Holocaust historian Lipstadt, Timothy Spall and Mick Jackson discuss Denial and proving that one of the worst massacres in recent history happened
Freedom of speech is the hot topic of the day. We strive to live in a society where everyone can say what they believe without having to fear the consequences. But where should we draw the line?
In terms of history, or recent history at least, it is now easy enough to trace sources to work out when something took place, who was there and how many people did or didn’t turn up to, say, a protest.
“We historians make our living by fighting over facts and interpretations and we do our research,” says Deborah Lipstadt. “Whose idea was the Holocaust? Could it have been stopped? What was Hitler’s motivation? Was it strictly anti-Semitism or was it something else?
“But not whether it happened or not.”
Lipstadt is the protagonist of one of the most significant international legal cases in recent memory. Accused of libel for calling David Irving a Holocaust denier, Lipstadt was forced to prove that the Holocaust did happen, in the English High Court where the burden of proof is on the defendant.
“He was my nemesis and yet he had total contempt for me. In fact one of the things he wanted to prove in court was that I was the puppet, the marionette of an international Jewish conspiracy. I couldn’t be the head of the conspiracy because I was a woman and he was a terrible, terrible misogynist, which often goes with anti Semitism and racism.”
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Lipstadt’s book Denial: Holocaust History on Trial became the base for new film Denial in which Rachel Weisz takes the lead role. Written by David Hare, the story follows her as she takes on Irving (Timothy Spall) with her band of lawyers, including barrister Richard Rampton QC (Tom Wilkinson) and solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott).
In Finchley Road’s JW3 centre, Lipstadt, Spall and director Mick Jackson discuss with Jason Solomons how they came to make the trial into a movie.
Lipstadt’s first encounter with Irving, and one of the first major scenes, occurred during a lecture she was conducting. A packed room watched as Irving stood and accused her of brainwashing her students. This scene was filmed in the very main hall in which the panel now speak.
“Having to stand up there and say what I had to say in a place like this, the irony and poignancy was not lost on me,” says Spall. “And having to say it over and over again!”
“It was a terrible moment because I was at a local community college, these were students who knew virtually nothing about the Holocaust. Here was this man accosting me and as frightening as you were, Tim, he was more frightening. I didn’t know what to do.
“I was like a deer in headlights. I really was lost.”
But Lipstadt comes across as anything but, and Jackson recalls the challenge of creating a dramatic story with an unconventional lead. The story arc of Denial doesn’t follow the usual formula of an anonymous woman who starts off as just another face in a crowd and finds her voice with a rousing speech in the last act, he says.
“This was about a person who starts out as that person: Deborah. So where do you go with them?”
He describes Lipstadt as “a person who is eminently capable of defending herself, fighting her corner, feisty, argumentative, passionate. The sort of person who, as I describe her, puts other people’s luggage into the overhead lockers.”
She was silenced by her lawyers, who decided not to call her or any Holocaust survivors to the stand, feeling this would give legitimacy to Irving’s claims.
Instead, she sat quietly as Rampton expertly took Irving, who defended himself, to task.
“The culminating point was in the closing arguments,” says Lipstadt, “when Irving was giving this long, never-ending speech and at one point he looked at [Justice] Charles Gray and he meant to say ‘Your Lordship’ but he said ‘Mein Fuhrer’.
“It’s one thing to defeat your enemy but it’s another thing to turn them into the court jester where they give testimony to their own weakness, their own absurdity and I think that’s what they did to David Irving. We made him look ridiculous.”
Spall’s chilling depiction of Irving is made all the more unsettling by just how much he had to put into the role, empathising with a man to whom he bears no resemblance.
Speaking of the process of getting into this character’s mindset he says: “Whether they be vile or loved or both, it’s your job from one human being to another, whatever that person is, to attempt to play it as a human being.
“Knowing that the things he was saying were so upsetting and vile and so easily picked up by the wrong people for the wrong reasons, I did start to feel isolated at the time.”
The release of Denial on January 27 is timely not simply because of its coincidence with Holocaust Memorial Day, but given the current global political climate.
Lipstadt says: “None of us really thought it would have the contemporary relevance that it has and no matter what you’re talking about, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s vaccines, whether it’s alternative facts. There’s truth and there are lies.
“I feel lucky because there are many people including many people in this audience who would want a chance to confront the bad guys, the anti-Semites, the homophobes, the misogynists, the Islamophobes, you would want to confront them.
“I was drawn into this and I got a chance to confront them and win.”
Denial is released on January 27.