The historian Deborah Lipstadt — fertile of mind, digressive of conversation — was walking through the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan on a recent afternoon when she came across a magnificent vista of the Hudson River outside one window.
Lipstadt, 69, a Holocaust scholar who teaches at Atlanta’s Emory University, had just finished looking through an exhibit on the murdered American innocent Leo Frank — “they pulled him right out and lynched him” — but was suddenly taken with the view.
“It’s so beautiful. Look at the water,” she said, then, motioning to some of the difficult exhibits behind her and the neighborhood of the 9/11 attacks in which the museum sat, added: “Right near all this. It’s poignant. Really poignant.”
In a film season that has seen the unlikely hero take forms as varied as Nat Turner and Sully Sullenbeger — and in an election period filled with charged discussions about tolerance and hate speech — Lipstadt offers a view of justice from another angle.
In 2000, the author took on David Irving in Britain after the infamous Holocaust denier accused her of libel. Eschewing the path-of-less-resistance option of settling out of court, Lipstadt raised funds for a high-end defense team and then battled it out with Irving at a trial, suppressing a desire that she or survivors testify. (Her lawyers thought it was smarter to keep the focus on Irving rather than essentially put the Holocaust on trial.)
After some initial setbacks, Lipstadt turned the tide. She and the survivors, who saw in the case a kind of canonization of Holocaust memory, emerged victorious, with the judge issuing a decisive 330-page verdict in her favor.
Mick Jackson’s new fact-based drama, “Denial,” which expanded to 31 screens this past weekend, offers a cinematic retelling of the story. Audiences can come to understand Lipstadt in the form of Rachel Weisz, who plays the scholar with outerborough brio — true to her spirit, if not quite her accent. (It’s more subdued in real life.)
“Rachel was intent on getting it right and wanted me on set,” Lipstadt said. “I tried to stay out of the way, to hide behind the video village, but I’m sure I was a pest to the crew.”
She paused. “That’s OK. I don’t mind being a pest.”
As Lipstadt walked through the exhibits, she made connections to history or her own life, often faster than most people could take in so much information in the first place.
“That’s Ben Meed,” she said, pointing to a looping video of a Warsaw Ghetto survivor and Holocaust activist that played in one corner. “Do you know Ben Meed? He’s an important figure. He called right before the verdict. He said, ‘Don’t sleep tonight. We’re all awake and watching over you.’ And I felt horrible. I thought, ‘Survivors are losing sleep because of me?’”
A moment later she spotted an exhibit about Jews and Mahjong in the mid-20th century and pivoted again. “Look at that. Jewish women loved to play Mahjong. They loved it. I don’t know why. It’s a good question. They weren't shtetl women. Look, these were well-dressed elegant women,” she said, pointing to a period photo at an upscale Catskills resort. “I need to find out why that was and get back to you.”
Lipstadt grew up with a traditional Jewish education in the New York area and has since taught in universities across the country, including a meaty if rocky stint in the Near Eastern studies department at UCLA in the 1980s. Though her immediate family was all in the U.S. when war broke out in Europe, she has friends and family members who escaped the Nazis, including the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician Robert Aumann.
“When Robert won the Nobel he brought his whole family, his kids and his grandkids — I think it was 38 people — to the ceremony. He said, ‘This is just one person had created. Imagine what else was lost.’’’
In a sense Lipstadt sees herself as similarly carrying on the legacy — speaking, via her scholarship, for a generation that can’t speak for itself. As depicted in the film, survivors would come up to her outside the trial and ask why none of them could testify; she had the difficult task of explaining to them, and herself, why the unimaginable possibility of silence was actually the wiser course and that allowing Irving to harangue them or twist their words in a cross-examination setting would do neither them nor the case any good.
Lipstadt in this regard walks a fine line, feeling the emotion of the tragedy but practicing the rigor of its study.
When the “Denial” production decamped to Auschwitz — they couldn’t shoot inside the camp but, with Lipstadt’s intervention, were able to meet with scholars and film right outside — she found herself offering a litany of academic information to the cast and crew. “It’s a way for me to compartmentalize. I have the emotional side, but I sometimes keep it academic because I think I’d just become too emotional.”
Lipstadt, who has a shock of brown-red hair and the kind of hunched-forward walk that suggests a perpetual desire to get somewhere, has a generally take-charge bearing. That can help when fighting the likes of David Irving.
“I remember talking to Deborah and immediately getting the sense of someone who opens her own doors without waiting for someone else,” Jackson, the director, said in an interview. “According to her parents her first words were ‘me do it.’ This is someone … who was born with the desire to lead.”
Lipstadt had actually been initially conflicted about a movie — with various threats and pressures, the case was a difficult time for her, and she wondered if its complexities could be conveyed onscreen. But she ultimately decided to cooperate for the same reason she decided to battle it out with Irving in court: It would send a message.
“No movie is going to change the David Irvings of the world,” she said. “What this can do is confront the people who think it’s OK to change facts as long as you call them ‘opinions.’”
Asked if she meant to connect those thoughts to the current election cycle she cut in quickly. “People say Trump. But I don’t want to limit it to him. It’s not that I don’t want to be political; I’ll be political. But it’s that it’s so much broader than that. It’s the idea that, ‘well, there was a Holocaust but maybe no gas chambers,’ or ‘there were Muslims dancing in New Jersey on 9/11,’ or ‘vaccines cause autism’ even though it’s based on totally junk science.”
She continued: “That’s what Irving was doing — that’s what he knew he was doing, knew the lies. Richard Evans [the British historian] had the example that if Irving said ‘good morning,’ he’d look out the window.
“It’s that idea — that people say, ‘Maybe there’s truth.’ It’s the followers. This movie is for the person in 16A. You know, the person on a five-hour plane ride, and just before they take off they make a mistake of talking to the person next to them and it’s a Holocaust denier like David Irving,” she said. “Something doesn’t seem right. But, well, he seems to know the facts, and you don’t really know much about the Holocaust, so you listen. And soon you start to think maybe he knows what he’s talking about, maybe there weren’t gas chambers at Auschwitz, maybe that was just one person’s opinion. This is for them.”
She took a look around the museum floor, drinking it in. Then she said, “We’re never going to do away with racism. All we can control is how we answer it.”
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT
1:42 p.m.: This article was updated with two amplifications on why Holocaust survivors did not testify at trial.
This article was originally published Oct. 10, 2016, 8:10 p.m.