The phrase "never forget" has taken on a sarcastic connotation on social media, or in pop culture, and is often used to memorialize shortlived celebrity couples, fads or memes. But its origins stem from a scarier idea: that we need to remember certain moments in history (the Holocaust, 9/11) so that they are not repeated. One would think, then, that Denial, a movie where a Holocaust denier takes a Jewish academic to court for defamation and claims this phrase (accurate or otherwise) is harming his career, holds more merit than ever as we begin to lose our connection to the generation of remaining survivors. And it does.
Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, a real-life Jewish history professor from Queens, New York (NOT Brooklyn, as she’ll tell you in the trailer) who takes offence with the studies and speeches of David Irving (Timothy Spall), another real-life academic from the UK. He believes “the Jews” are exaggerating the amount of lives lost in the Holocaust, and preaches that Auschwitz is and was not a death camp. He bases his opinions on another “revisionist” academic’s work, one who also deliberately tried to falsify history.
Rachel plays Deborah as a no-nonsense, confident and unflappable academic. She refuses to engage with Irving’s discourse, and publishes a book in which she denounces all of his claims, citing countless firsthand reports and everything else she’s found in her research and chats with survivors. The result? A lawsuit. At the time, Holocaust denial was under the umbrella of free speech. So he sued, and she lawyered up with the team that won a landmark divorce case for Princess Diana. If they could win it for her, how could she lose?
Well, you quickly find out that Irving is a calculated famewhore. He’ll use any platform to humiliate others in order to prove his point. Deborah’s lawyers choose a different strategy: to silence survivors by not having them take the stand, letting her academic work speak for itself, and using primary documents to prove Irving wrong. Initially, Deborah is outraged. How can you take away a survivor’s right to speak, or to talk about the terrors they experienced? But the legal team of barristers and solicitors (including Tom Wilkinson, who is ALWAYS good) believe that’s unwise, and also opt to silence Deborah, which leads to only Irving’s spewing hate speech being a part of the public discourse. They choose logic and “facts” over emotion. Will it work? Will she win?
Over the course of the film, Deborah tries to show Tom Wilkinson’s Richard Rampton that having emotion about the atrocities of the Holocaust does not make the events any less logical, or real. Together, they go to Auschwitz, and step into the gas chambers. He views them clinically, which upsets her even more. He decides not to change their legal strategy, and ultimately Deborah accepts it.
The problem, though, is that the movie seems to be missing a few key scenes. There’s no epiphany from Deborah about why she should side with her legal team over what she feels is right as a Jewish woman and as an academic. And when she finally does speak, she’s so articulate, it leaves the viewer even more puzzled as to why her lawyers would wish to keep her quiet, or to keep her off the stand. She could stand up to Irving, but a survivor may not have been equipped to do so. That, we get. But Deborah? She gets it. So why?
The film is true to life, but the Deborah Rachel Weisz plays is not one to step down from a position she feels so deeply. If anything, she’s a fighter for the truth, and to tell the “right” side of history. I wish this movie spent more time on Deborah, and telling us how she got to that decision as opposed to rushing to get there.
What was scary to me was that over the next few years, these voices and these survivors will be silenced as they leave us, one by one. Their memories must live on in the primary documents and the interpretation of said, well, artifacts. Take this Boston Globe headline from April, for example.
"‘Never forget,’ the world said of the Holocaust. But the world is forgetting."
While this movie was set in the recent past, the character of Deborah, who definitely understands this, would want to fight harder to keep the survivors’ stories or to keep her argument against Irving in the conversation. And when she sided with her team? I wanted there to be a showy moment about how she could make peace with that, knowing what’s ahead, and that these ties will soon disappear forever. It was missing that emotion and instead, all we got was detachment.
This movie needed to better remember the Holocaust. Rachel tried, and the real Deborah sure tried, and Denial was just good, but not great. It’s an almost, with an excellent performance from Rachel, a British Jewish woman herself.