I first became aware of David John Cadwell Irving during a screening of Errol Morris’ 1996 documentary “Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.” In it, he is presented on camera as a “revisionist historian”, who seems to have been brought into the film to provide a pseudo-psychoanalysis of the film’s subject, Mr Leuchter. On camera, he speaks with an upper gentry English accent and is most rude and cruel when discussing Fred Leuchter and the sordid affair his later life became. From this, I eventually started to research Mr Irving himself in more depth; finding a slew of poorly shot videos on Youtube where he gives hour-long speeches bemoaning Winston Churchill, FDR and others, whilst exulting mountains of praise for Heinrich Himmler, Josef Goebbels, and of course, Adolf Hitler. One particularly interesting video was where Irving is talking to a small group of avid listeners in what appears to be a hotel lobby where he states his belief that Rudolph Hess is the most deserving candidate in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, ever, for his flight to Scotland before the outbreak of World War Two. Quite interesting.
But it wasn’t long before I started to see an even darker side to this historian. One in which he can be seen appearing at pro-Nazi rallies in Germany, speaking in fluent German, raising his right hand in salute to “Der Fuhrer”, or shouting at people presenting lectures, challenging them to find documents proving Hitler’s culpability and knowledge of the Holocaust. Another series of videos I watched were made by the BBC interviewing Irving after a 2000 libel case that he lost. In the interview, he appears defensive, but also, selective in his opinion of the devasting verdict that the judge had thrown down upon him. Any morsel of reputation that he had once had was stripped away, rightfully, by a self-inflicted wound when Irving challenged Jewish author Deborah Lipstadt to a libel challenge. This challenge was brought about when Lipstadt, along with Penguin Books, published ‘Denying the Holocaust’, a book in which Irving was mentioned firmly as a Holocaust denier. In a move of pure cynicism, Irving exploited the UK’s bizarre libel laws to sue Lipstadt into silence. Fortunately for us as readers of history, and for history’s many victims of Nazi tyranny, she won.
So after many hours of watching this man speak, both to large crowds and more intimate circles on film, I had reached a fairly secure opinion about this once respected historian. One intellectual I adore, Christopher Hitchens, had a piece to say about him in the 1990s, referring to him as one of the three or four “necessary historians of the Third Reich”. It’s very easy to label someone as a Nazi, racist, fascist, sexist, bigot, etc. but when a person of Hitchens’ calibre has some nice things to say I will admit my ears pricking slightly. The opinion I had or Irving, and still do, is that he was once one of the most respected Western historians of the Nazi period. His books published in the 1970s provided new insight into the upper echelons of Nazi Germany, and let us not forget that Irving is one of an incredibly small number of historians who were able to gain access to a treasure trove of archived documents, thanks in part to him expressing sympathies to Germany with the publishing of his 1963 book “The Destruction of Dresden”. Let us also not forget Hitler’s own thoughts towards English historians; he apparently had confided in friends that only an Englishman would be able to tell the real story about himself and the Nazi party. Self-fulfilling prophecy for Irving indeed.
But Irving, a slave to media attention and craving respect, allowed his ego and lust for recognition to cloud his judgment, and eventually only found acceptance with people who could only be described as “fascist sympathizers”. His accusations against prominent Jewish individuals, many of whom have dedicated their lives to teaching about the Holocaust, and his invocation of the essential pillar of Holocaust denial (if you excuse my use of language) of whether or not hundreds of thousands of people were gassed to death in gas chambers in Auschwitz, has lead him to where he is now. A fringe individual, a rogue historian, who selectively picks and compiles which documents he wishes to see to fulfil a narrative that allows for the possible idea that the Nazis did not systematically kill millions of Jews, Slavs, gays, Roma and countless others. What fascinated me about Irving was this very transition from prominent and well-respected historian to lunatic fascist apologist. A transition that I had hoped would be covered in the new film by Mick Jackson titled “Denial“.
As a piece of cinema Denial is an effective legal courtroom drama, albeit a British legal courtroom drama, John Grisham thriller it is not. Featuring are a stellar cast of British actors, although some play Americans, and it sheds a cinematic light on one of the more unusual cases in British legal history. Namely the 2000 libel case that Irving brought to Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. The reason why Irving brought this action against the author in London is of course due to the ridiculous system of British libel law, where the defendant has to prove their innocence, instead of the accuser having to prove libellous action. Such a backward legal system is open for exploitation, like in the infamous McLibel case; the longest running case in British legal history, where McDonald’s sued for libel two poor activists who eventually brought the fast food giant down. It makes sense then that an opportunist like Irving would attempt such an action with such a backward legal system; a point that is explained by Lipstadt’s solicitor early on in the film.
As for Lipstadt herself, she is played, perhaps ever so kindly, by Rachel Weisz. Weisz does a convincing enough job of making her American accent not too stereotypical but gets the emotional core of Lipstadt’s struggle perfectly nailed. Here is a woman who did not ask to be brought into this legal nightmare and, as a foreigner, is continuously irked by the formalities of the British legal system. Her solicitor, the famous Anthony Julius, who helped Diana split off from Charles, is played by Andrew Scott, an actor who first came to international prominence through TV’s Sherlock and later James Bond’s ‘Spectre‘. But where in Spectre Scott looked like a ridiculous over-the-top slimy bad guy, here in Denial he manages to balance the slime with legal charm. The wire-framed glasses Scott wears, along with the posh accent and solicitors demeanour actually, for once, make him feel like an approachable individual. He’s still slimy, after all he is a lawyer, but his appearance is for once not an obvious distraction as it was in Spectre. Then we have Tom Wilkinson, one of my favourite actors, in the role of the barrister, Richard Rampton QC. Wilkinson shines as he always does, as the grumpy elderly man that has a heart of gold beneath that wrinkled, pudgy exterior. He excels as the tough-as-nails barrister when interacting with Irving in the court, and his performance reminds me of just how malleable an actor he is.
Now bizarrely, given the attention to detail with the other cast, I was a bit surprised to see that Timothy Spall would be playing David Irving. Spall’s credentials need not require explaining as he is a staple of fine British acting. His performances in Secrets and Lies, Pierrepoint and Mr Turner speak for themselves. But here I think the film made a fatal flaw. David Irving is a lot of things but one of those is charming. If you see the way Irving communicated his arguments to the listening crowd, the way he can name from the top of his head dates, times, schedules, persons, locations, it’s all very impressive. Irving has a dark energy when he speaks, a power I’m sure he has used to make doubters fall into his camp. Spall is an incredibly talented actor but charm has never been one of his strong suits. Apart from the vast physical difference between them both, Spall is far more equipped to play the sensitive, tragic figure, or the squealing, squabbling sycophant. Spall as Irving took me out of the film, not because he doesn’t try, but because he A. looks nothing like the real Irving, and B. is never given a moment to tap into the dark charm the real man has. In short, he was miscast.
But I think perhaps the script is also at fault. While the narrative follows Lipstadt’s decisions and struggles with the court battle I couldn’t help but start to think of an alternative film playing in my brain. There are numerous scenes where Lipstadt and her legal team sit back in their dark leather-bound office chairs and celebrate with drinks over their minor legal victory of the day. All the while pontificating on what must be going through Irving’s mind. And as much as I found Lipstadt’s struggle interesting to witness, I was quite frankly more fascinated by the Irving perspective. We already knew the result of the court case and we already know that Holocaust denial is a raping of history. But what we don’t know, and what could have been creatively exploited, was Irving’s sense of the trial. Here was a man that ruined what was left of his career with a self-inflicted wound and was forced to meekly pretend that victory was his in front of the press cameras.
What would have interested me more was watching the life and history of this man as he fell from respect to squalor. I wanted to see perhaps the slightest morsel of inner turmoil in Spall’s performance, a scene where perhaps he discusses with his children the court case and perhaps one of his children questions whether he is right. Instead, sadly for the film, Irving is played as a Disney-esque villain, all smiles and sunshine but constantly evil and tainted by his work. I won’t put words in Deborah Lipstadt’s mouth but I would imagine that anyone who denies the Holocaust can only be portrayed as stereotypically evil in Hollywood. Anything otherwise leaves open the possibility that Holocaust deniers are people too, people with lives, accomplishments, feelings and families. Errol Morris showed the full story of Fred Leuchter and his fall from grace, and all it does is make for one depressing journey, where we witness a small but clever man ruin himself. Better to just make them easily hateable from the get-go, that way we don’t have to challenge ourselves. Denial is well-made, well-acted and shines a light on a rather shadowy figure in recent history. My only regret is that the filmmakers didn’t tap into the dark charm of Irving and let us as an audience feel at least a little insecure, and question if what we know to be true was something else, if only for a moment.