Earlier this year, the concentration camp Auschwitz was wiped off the face of the Earth. A superpowered Holocaust survivor who goes by the name of “Magneto” went to the hallowed massacre site, and — blind with rage after suffering a tremendous personal loss — used his mutant abilities to dismantle the single most important landmark of his people’s suffering. It was a striking moment, in part because it seemed wildly out of place in a movie about a group of teens who dress in purple spandex and fight each other with magic, and in part because Magneto’s rash show of rage wasn’t played as a revenge fantasy so much as an act of historical rejection.
There’s a good reason why, in real life, Auschwitz is a museum and not a landfill: It protects against those who say the Holocaust could never happen again, and — increasingly — to serve as evidence that it took place in the first place. Magneto loses sight of that and never recovers, he spends the rest of “X-Men: Apocalypse” in a blank fugue state, muttering a half-dozen lines from beneath an unchanging mask of self-erasure.
Mick Jackson’s “Denial,” allegedly the first non-documentary production to shoot on the haunted grounds of Auschwitz [update: distributor Bleecker Street specifies that this is “the first narrative film to have been allowed to film outside the perimeter gates with its actors. They were allowed documentary style filming inside the fence, but there was another film back in 1947 which was allowed the same privilege”), feels born from Magneto’s act of destruction. A simple courtroom drama that never betrays its convictions, the film is a basic but bitterly urgent reminder that history is far more fluid than fact, a garden that must be tended to at all times lest it wither and grow weeds.
Stretching from the last years of the 20th century to the first days of the 21st (a time when extremist groups were just beginning to recognize the internet as the most powerful organizational tool since the Swastika), “Denial” tells the all too true story of the clown show that ensued when author David Irving sued historian Deborah Lipstadt (and her publisher, Penguin Books) for libel in 1996, claiming that one of her books had mischaracterized him as a Holocaust denier. That might seem like a strange bit of self-immolation for such a rancorous and openly rabid anti-Semite, but Irving knew something that Lipstadt would only come to learn in time: In England, there is no assumption of innocence in libel cases, and the burden of proof falls upon the defendant. As a result, Lipstadt and her team were effectively tasked with proving — forensically — that the Holocaust actually happened.
That, as both parties were well-aware, would be easier said than done. The Nazis, in their final act of barbarity, were as thorough in erasing any evidence of their crimes as they had been in erasing the Jewish people. Fortunately for Lipstadt (and right-thinking people the world over), she had a remarkable team of lawyers to help her make the case for history.
There are any number of movies about the power of storytelling, but the decidedly unromantic “Denial” is one of the rare few that approaches the subject as a cautionary tale. Working from a spirited but straightforward script by the brilliant playwright and screenwriter David Hare (“The Hours”), the film is immediately attuned to the dark power of narrativizing hatred.
Its opening scene would be absurd if it weren’t so believable: Irving — played here by a slippery and wickedly convincing Timothy Spall — crashes one of Lipstadt’s lectures with a few conspirators in tow, hijacking her forum, offering $1,000 to anyone who can prove that the Nazis gassed Jews at Auschwitz, and recording the whole thing for posterity. It’s an uncomfortable moment for Lipstadt, who has publicly vowed never to engage with anyone who claims the Holocaust didn’t happen. One attendee argues that she’s refusing to engage in a debate, but not all opinions are created equal.
As Lipstadt, Rachel Weisz makes the most of a thankless role that’s ultimately defined by a reverence for the truth and a really thick Queens accent. Much like Lipstadt herself, Weisz’s greatest challenge lies in not being overcome by disgust, not being lost in the shadow of more outlandish characters — as viewers may already be aware, it’s a lot more fun to be a hate-mongering firebrand than it is to be a well-meaning rationalist, a lot easier to steal the spotlight as a man on the attack than as a woman on the defense. The film’s solution is a strange one, as Hare’s script slowly reduces Lipstadt to the comic relief of her own crusade, the righteous American drawing solid laughs as she defies the strange decorum of the British court system.
In fairness, however, “Denial” halfheartedly argues that a coalition of the just will always triumph over a deranged ideologue, and the film’s supporting cast is so good that you’ll hardly care when Lipstadt recedes into their ranks. As cold-blooded libel lawyer Richard Rampton, the great Tom Wilkinson only further cements his status as a humble pillar of contemporary British cinema. Wilkinson is the rare actor who can balance casual grace with extreme gravitas — his steady performance shudders with the knowledge losing the trial would make it acceptable to doubt the Holocaust, but Wilkinson tempers that anxiety with staunch professionalism, knowing full well that his character is also making a case for the efficacy of the system, of the need to prioritize veracity over a misplaced sense of victimhood.
That restraint is evident throughout the movie, which confronts denial through a self-imposed asceticism. Jackson, whose “L.A. Story” evinced a certain visual flair, directs this project with the blunt functionality of an aging barrister. Aside from the Auschwitz scene, which is shot with appropriate solemnity, the film seems determined to get out of the way of its argument. Hare’s writing is similarly straightforward, and even begins to border on anti-drama as the trial builds towards its verdict.
There’s no big speech, and Irving isn’t given much of a straw man argument — unlike, say, the media covering an election, parity isn’t the end game here. This isn’t a debate, it’s a sledgehammer; it’s not inherently compelling drama, but it’s immensely satisfying catharsis to watch as it flattens Irving’s nonsense into nothingness. Likewise, it’s not great cinema (in fact, it’s as milquetoast and middle-brow as movies get, and its third act suffers by trying to gin up additional suspense), but “Denial” does the modern world a great service by refusing to entertain the idea that there are two sides to every story, even if that means it refuses to entertain a portion of its audience in the process.
Not to put too fine a point on a movie that has no right to be so relevant in the fall of 2016, but stories are powerful things, and sometimes we need to resist them. Auschwitz was hell on earth, but the moment it’s gone is the moment someone starts to rebuild it somewhere else.
“Denial” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Bleecker Street will release it in theaters on September 30.