Thursday, September 08, 2016

A charlatan’s defense of his Hollywood screenplay

David Hare on writing nothing but the truth about a Holocaust denier 

The Guardian newspaper (UK) • Sept. 3, 2016 


By David Hare

In 2000 historian David Irving sued author Deborah Lipstadt for her description of him as a Holocaust denier. As his screen version comes to the cinema, David Hare explains why the trial was a triumph of free speech (Lipstadt's life work is a witch-hunting triumph for the abridgment of speech and the smearing of gas chamber doubters as morally defective cretins unworthy of a decent reputation or a good job. After the trial in 2000, homicidal gas chamber sceptic Ernst Zündel was imprisoned for a total of seven years in Canadian and German jails. Where's the "triumph of free speech" in that? Scientist Germar Rudolf was also imprisoned, and dozens of others Michael Hoffman)

In 2010 I was first approached by the BBC and by Participant Media to adapt Deborah Lipstadt’s book History on Trial for the screen. My first reaction was one of extreme reluctance. I have no taste for Holocaust movies. It seems both offensive and clumsy to add an extra layer of fiction to suffering which demands no gratuitous intervention. It jars. Faced with the immensity of what happened, sober reportage and direct testimony have nearly always been the most powerful approach. In the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, I had noticed that all the photography, however marginal and inevitably however incomplete, had a shock and impact lacking in the rather contrived and uninteresting art.

It was a considerable relief on reading the book to find that although the Holocaust was its governing subject, there was no need for it to be visually recreated. In 2000 the British historian David Irving, whose writing had frequently offered a sympathetic account of the second world war from the Nazi point of view, had sued Lipstadt in the high court in London, claiming that her description of him as a denier in her previous book Denying the Holocaust had done damage to his reputation. In English courts at the time, the burden of proof in any libel case lay not with the accuser but with the defendant. In the United States it was the litigant’s job to prove the untruth of the alleged libel. But in the United Kingdom it was up to the defendant to prove its truth. It was in that context that London was Irving’s chosen venue. He no doubt thought it would make his legal action easier. All at once, an Atlanta academic was to find herself with the unenviable task of marshalling conclusive scientific proof for the attempted extermination of the European Jews over 50 years earlier. 

There were many interesting features to the case – not least the condescension of some dubious parts of the British academic community to an upstart American – but three aspects appealed to me above all. First, there was a technical script-writing challenge. In conventional American pictures, the role of the individual is wholeheartedly celebrated. In a typical studio film, even one as good as Erin Brockovich, there is always an obvious injustice which is corrected by an inarticulate person suddenly being given the chance to find their voice. The tradition goes back to Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda and beyond. But what was unusual about Lipstadt’s experience was that she was an already articulate and powerfully intelligent woman who was ordered by her own defence team not to give evidence. The decision was made that her testimony would give Irving, conducting his own case, the opportunity to switch the focus of the trial from what it should properly be about – the examination of how his antisemitism infected his honesty – to an attack on something entirely irrelevant: the reliability in the witness box of Lipstadt’s instant capacity to command every scattergun detail of history.

It was quite a professional undertaking to make drama out of such a complete and painful act of self-denial. One thing for sure: we would not be offering a boilerplate Hollywood narrative. At great expense to her own peace of mind, Lipstadt had agreed to be silenced. The fascination of the film would lie with the personal cost of that choice. What were the implications for someone who, having been brought up to believe in the unique power of the individual, discovered instead the far subtler joys of teamwork? 

The book she had written turned out to be her complete defense, and the verdict vindicated that book in almost every detail. But in order to effect that defense she had to trust the judgment of two other people from a country and a bizarre legal system different from her own – her Scottish barrister Richard Rampton and her English solicitor Anthony Julius. Rampton arrived fresh from defending McDonald’s in the McLibel case, the longest trial in English legal history. Julius had handled Princess Diana’s divorce.

Second, it was clear from the start that this film would be a defence of historical truth. It would be arguing that although historians have the right to interpret facts differently, they do not have the right knowingly to misrepresent those facts. But if such integrity was necessary for historians, then it surely had to apply to screenwriters too. If I planned to offer an account of the trial and of Irving’s behaviour, I would enjoy none of the film writer’s usual licence to speculate or invent. From the trial itself there were 32 days of transcript, which took me weeks to read thoroughly. Not only would I refuse to write scenes which offered any hokey psychological explanation for Irving’s character outside the court, I would also be bound to stick rigidly to the exact words used inside it. I could not allow any neo-fascist critic later to claim that I had re-written the testimony. (Really, Mr. Hare, your critics are all neo-fascists? Here we see through the boasting of Mr. Hare about his fairness. He is so twisted in his partisanship that he blackens the reputation of any potential critic with a fascist-baiting smear. He is demonizing his opposition. Is this not an appalling act of misrepresentation?  M. Hoffman)

Nor did I want to. The trial scenes are verbatim. To say that such fidelity represented an almost impossible dramatic difficulty – this trial, like any other, was often extremely boring – would be to understate. At times, I would beat my head, wondering why real-life characters couldn’t put things in ways which more pithily expressed their purposes.

But it was for a third overriding reason that I came to feel that a film of Lipstadt’s fascinating book cried out to be made. In an internet age it is, at first glance, democratic to say that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That is surely true. It is however a fatal step to then claim that all opinions are equal. Some opinions are backed by fact. Others are not. And those that are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those that are. 

A few clubby English historians (this a reference, most notably, to Sir John Keegan  M. Hoffman) had always indulged Irving on the grounds that although he was evidently soft on Hitler, he was nevertheless a master of his documents. These admirers were ready to step forward and attack Lipstadt’s character and her success in the courts on the grounds that it was likely to make others historians more cautious, and thereby to inhibit freedom of speech.

But far from being an attack on freedom of speech, Lipstadt’s defense turned out to be its powerful triumph. Freedom of speech may include freedom deliberately to lie. But it also includes the right to be called out on your lying. (Revisionists are not allowed to  "call out the lying about homicidal gas chambers. This is a right exercised without fear of losing one's employment and reputation [and in Canada & Europe one's freedom], only by those who call revisionists and dissidents liars.  M. Hoffman).

During the early days of the Renaissance, Copernicus and Galileo would have scoffed at the idea that there was any such thing as authority. A sceptical approach to life is a fine thing and one which has powered revolutionary change and high ideals. But a sceptical approach to scientific fact is rather less admirable. (It is exactly the science of Auschwitz upon which revisionists like Robert Faurrison, Carlo Mattogno and Rudolf have concentrated, and which Lipstadt decrees must not be debated. She is the religious fanatic in this case. The revisionists are the Galileos. In 2006 Irving was imprisoned for almost a year in Austria for a WWII history lecture. Lipstadt's screenwriter doesn't even bother to mention it.  M. Hoffman). 

It is dangerous. As Lipstadt says in my screenplay, certain things are true. Elvis is dead. The icecaps are melting. And the Holocaust did happen. Millions of Jews went to their deaths in camps and open pits in a brutal genocide which was sanctioned and operated by the leaders of the Third Reich. There are some subjects about which two points of view are not equally valid. We are entering, in politics especially, a post-factual era in which it is apparently permissible for public figures to assert things without evidence, and then to justify their assertions by adding “Well, that’s my opinion” – as though that in itself was some kind of justification. It isn’t. And such charlatans need to learn it isn’t. Contemplating the Lipstadt/Irving trial may help them to that end. (End quote)

Read more:

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Mr. Hoffmans speech, Lipstadt, Amalek and Irving given at David Irvings Real History Conference,  Labor Day 2001, will be re-released on DVD and audio-CD later this month.
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2 comments:

Dakota said...

Freedom of speech is absolutely necessary for a free, moral and honest people. Like Thomas Paine once said: "He who dares not offend cannot be honest." Suppressing the right to speak honestly even if it causes offense prevents genuine honest debate all for an imaginary peace. Perhaps this explains why Trump has touched a nerve among the PC weary folk in America?

Even Ayn Rand put it this way: "Individual rights are not subject to a public vote. A majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority. The political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities and the smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities."

No one has the right not be offended. I highly recommend all watch Brendan O'Neill's public debate on the subject of freedom of speech and right to offend at www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtWrljX9HRA

Michael Hoffman said...

Ayn Rand believed that the Israeli majority had the right to dictate to the Palestinian minority; she was a horrible person.