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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Denial: Facts are ethical

Roger and I recently saw Denial, the story of holocaust denier David Irving's libel lawsuit against scholar Deborah E. Lipstadt. The movie is worth noting for its ethical core.

Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt

Admittedly, there's much to annoy about this movie. Lipstadt's role is not well-scripted, so she comes across as an emotional child-woman (an image reinforced by what was apparently meant to be a 1990s-style permed bob cut but looks more like the wayward curls of a Shirley Temple). As a child-woman and an overly-emotional American, she has to be reined in and schooled by the wiser and more reasoned British (mostly) men on her legal team. The brilliant and morally perfect, as well as avuncular English barrister, Richard Rampton, played by Tom Wilkinson, particularly brings her to gentle heel. While she is not ritually humiliated, for which I give the movie credit, the contrition of her apology once she sees the folly of her ways has an unsettling note of abjection.  

Wilkinson as Rampton gathers the facts at Auschwitz while Lipstadt emotes. Yes the gender stereotypes grate.

In a better movie, we would feel Deborah's outrage and pain at her legal team's strategy. If the movie had been more successful, we as an audience would initially feel she should be able to say her piece in court rather than be muzzled. We would feel that she should, as she would like to do but is forbidden, be able to bring forward Holocaust survivors to prove that Irving is wrong.

In a better movie, the legal team's visit to Auschwitz would pack the emotional punch the filmmakers clearly intended and reinforce our sense that Lipstadt is justified in her righteous anger. Yet it falls flat. That's too bad, because having visited a concentration camp myself (Sachenhausen) I know what a deeply sobering impact such a place can have.

What does work is the film's moral core. There's never any question that Lipstadt is right and Irving wrong, that the Holocaust happened and that denying it is the worst kind of canard. The film makes a convincing, one might even say passionate, ethical case for the use of reason and strategy: winning over evil is far more important than expressing our righteous anger, blasting the truth out or indulging our outrage that a pernicious lie is being treated seriously in a court of law. What matters is winning, not for winning's sake or ego gratification, but so that the lie is smashed, such that that next time it rears up it becomes all the more difficult to tell the lie with any credibility.

The movie shows that to win--to crush the lie of David Irving--it's important to marshall facts, to do hard work and careful research, to keep our emotions, no matter how justified, in check and under control. It is heartening to see in England, at least in this case, a legal system that works, where truth wins and competence matters--and the film shows how important that is. 

Timothy Spall as David Irving. He's shot as a flaccid creep.

The focus on fact seems important to emphasize because we live in a world awash in emotionalism, so much so that one of our Presidential candidates seems to have no control over his twitching, twittering fingers,  a world where personality and "identity" shout down sober reality. As Christoper Hedges put in Truthdig ("American Irrationalism," Nov. 1, 2016):


"Political, intellectual and cultural discourse has been replaced with spectacle. Emotionalism and sensationalism are prized over truth." 

Agreed. While the alt-right or the Neo-Nazis might hope to reduce the holocaust's truth to whatever side can act more aggrieved, be more snide or derisive, or shout louder, to win because their "narrative"  gains "traction" in cyberspace, in fact, the movie says,  documenting the truth is how we defeat evil.

That may be an old-fashioned worldview, but it also the foundation of scholarship--that the careful compilation of verifiable facts matters--and truth is the foundation of democracy. It's also the foundation of the good life: we cannot prosper if we rush into wars or economic policies that are based on blatant fantasies.

The movie also does a good job of exposing Irving for the mocking racist, misogynist and anti-Semite he is. I was startled at his similarities to Trump in what were restagings of speeches he gave. He was also remarkably like Trump in his inability to live in reality: he immediately "spun" his resounding defeat in court as a victory. Well, why not, if facts don't count?

While I value emotion, I long for a society in which its importance is subordinated to truth.  Denial, though a flawed film, provides a decent template for how we can achieve that. 

4 comments:

  1. This is a superb blog and I wish it had more circulation -- especially among feminists (if there are any left). While I admire Rachel Weisz's work enormously, I know that often in films she features in she is presented as a child-woman. She has her heart and reason in the right place, but she is over-emotional, displays very risky behavior (for which she is brutally murdered in The Constant Gardiner). I saw a goddawful movie just recently where this stereotype packaging was to the fore. It's telling to me that you can find better treatment of her, and the two times I know of are films where there is a female community or overt feminism. In the first she had Helen Mirren's Prime Suspect tradition to fall back on:

    https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/whistleblower-the-difference-class-makes/

    In the second she was Agora; though there the child-woman type emerged and she dies at the end, the theme of the importance of speech, of teaching was inspiringly done:

    https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/agora-the-story-of-a-heroine-as-tragically-silenced-teacher/

    On the issue of campaigns as no longer presenting reason, and wiping away documentation (or hiding it, or suing to keep it out of the public eye), there has been so much said of late, and all to little purpose. I want to say that democracy is badly flawed where a people are so ill-informed and continually subject to propaganda. In the Trump-Clinton campaign an ugly misogyny also fuels the hatred of Clinton, and the repeated public humiliations of her seem never to come to an end. What will happen if she should win the presidency? Like Obama, will a critical number of elected officials simply refuse to acknowledge her as president.

    It's also important to use power against power: the power of a lawyer,k of the courts. I have in front of me a letter asking for money from the Southern Poverty Law Center on the basis of death threats to members of their central teams. They carry on doing the kind of work the film praises.

    As to the exemplary patriarchal male that Wilkinson (think of Bella) is now chosen for, I await a movie where Lily James turns up as his princess-style raped daughter.

    Ellen

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  2. Beautifully written blog -- I'd just like to know a bit more about Deborah E. Lipstadt. I read the reviews of the film and thought I would pass but may now reconsider. I rarely go to see any films these days as there is so little to choose from. The stereotyping is atrocious. We desperately need some new female role models. Perhaps this will come to pass if Hilary wins the election.

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  3. Ellen and Elaine,
    Thank you. Ellen, I had not thought of the Southern Poverty Law Center but they are people doing this kind of good work. Elaine, the film is not perfect, but worth seeing.

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  4. Roger mentioned the movie Hannah Arendt, that focuses on the Eichmann trial, as a good counterpoint or film to pair with this one. In Hannah Arendt, Arendt is portrayed as a competent, intelligent and fully middle-aged woman, not a girl child. It's an excellent film but should get a shout out for being able to portray an intelligent woman in a non-demeaning way.

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