Freedom of speech (Denial movie review)

Freedom of speech” is a basis of both – democracy and dialogue, but at the same time it becomes a cliché that radical groups that represent nationalism, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism use to justify hate speech. The movie “Denial”, directed by Mick Jackson, clashes the essence of the right to speak freely that ends when the speaker lies or negates facts with its terrifying caricature that allows all speeches to appear in public sphere without legal or moral consequences for those who have decided to share their hateful or ridiculous (and dangerous) thoughts and beliefs with the world.

Professor Deborah Lipstadt (very good Rachel Weisz) is forced to battle for historian truth to prove the Holocaust actually occurred when David Irving (great Timothy Spall), a pseudo-historian and a renowned denier, sues her for libel. What sounds like a scene taken from a theatre of absurd, because seems to be too ridiculous to be taken seriously, turns out to be a shocking, but based on facts, story of real – very spectacular, long and extremely expensive trial. The director of “Denial” focuses on the court drama, during which Lipstadt and her lawyers had to prove that Irving was a liar that intentionally manipulated facts to create a parallel version of history that purifies Hitler and fits into his nationalistic and racist vision of the world.

The history of this monumental, 5-year-long trial that was shocking not only for the academy and Jewish community, but also for the entire world, brings together on-going reflections on post-truth and on the nature and limits of free speech that is being deformed by the tendency to growing acceptance for lies whose presence in public space is confused with democratic right to free expressions of one’s opinions. Being forced to prove the existence of the Holocaust is for the American an extreme experience that feels like a nightmare that comes true. The entire trial seems to be a failure of both – justice and moral systems. The fact that the voice of a racist with a cynical smile glued to his face, who constantly whitens Adolf Hitler and turns the testimonies of survivors into a political jokes and material for his pathetic stand-ups in nationalistic clubs, wasn’t rejected is something that is very hard to understand only proves that the world of post-truth went to a very bad place.

The American professor’s situation is getting even more complicated by the fact that the trial takes place in English court, where human emotions and voices of those who survived and want to speak for those who haven’t make it must be replace by the logics of presentation of facts that has not much in common with memorializing practice and sometimes even makes impression of profanation. This problem is well presented in scenes where Deborah confronts her ideas of what is right with the strategies of her lawyers that let neither her nor the survivors speak. The director of the movie bases its dramaturgy on the old, romantic conflict of heart and mind. The group of well-respected attorneys seems to be a pure representation of cynicism that comes from will to win which makes them blind for the fragility of Deborah’s case, but – as the story develops – it turns out that they actually do care about their client and the people that she wants justice for.

The relation between the writer and her lawyers is one of the best parts of the entire movie – Jackson focuses on the trial and turns his characters into figures in the theatre of the court, but at the same time he allows them to tell their own stories, which makes “Denial” more tender, but – what’s important – not excessively sentimental.