Sunday 21 January 2018

Dark journeys: getting to the bottom of the Holocaust

As a new film ponders the career of Holocaust-denier David Irving, our film critic takes a look at movie documentaries that have shone a light on this distressing subject - several of which fell foul of the censors

Legal battle: Rachel Weisz, left, and author Deborah E Lipstadt on the set of their film Denial. Photo: Liam Daniel / Bleecker Street
Legal battle: Rachel Weisz, left, and author Deborah E Lipstadt on the set of their film Denial. Photo: Liam Daniel / Bleecker Street

Paul Whitington

It's odd to find yourself tittering during a film about the Holocaust, but watching Denial there were times when one wanted to laugh out loud. That's partly because Mike Jackson's undeniably entertaining drama, which is released here next week, has soap-opera tendencies which overwhelm it during hammy court scenes that become unintentionally comic. But perhaps Denial is funny mainly because its central figure is inherently ridiculous.

The film is based around the true story of American historian Deborah Lipstadt's legal battle with British historian and Third Reich enthusiast David Irving, played here with many a histrionic flourish by Timothy Spall. Rachel Weisz is Lipstadt, who's delivering an impassioned lecture in an Atlanta University in 1996 when Irving sneaks into the auditorium and starts shouting her down and challenging her to prove that the Holocaust happened. "I won't debate fact," she counters, but their spat is far from over.

Irving's beef with Lipstadt stems from a recent book in which she labelled him a Holocaust denier, and following their lecture-hall encounter, the professor finds herself being sued for libel. She travels to London for the trial, which hinges on whether or not Irving intentionally falsified facts to argue that the gas chambers at Auschwitz never actually existed.

Irving lost his libel case, was subsequently entirely discredited as a historian, and in 2005 was arrested in Austria, where Holocaust denial is a crime, and spent a year in prison. Though largely self-taught, he'd once been taken seriously as an academic: his 1967 book on the bombing of Dresden was widely admired, and by the mid-1970s he was considered one of the leading authorities on the Nazi era.

But his enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler was unsettling: in a 1977 biography of the dictator, the Holocaust was mentioned just four times, and Irving would later argue that Hitler had never approved or even been aware of the mass extermination of Jews. He later began denying the Holocaust altogether, and even claimed the Allies had arranged the killings.

In advance of Denial's release, Irving has been making headlines once more, claiming in a British newspaper last weekend that he has found a new generation of admirers.

"Interest in my work has risen exponentially in the last two or three years. And it's mostly young people," he told the Observer.

"I'm getting messages from 14, 15 and 16-year-olds in America. They find me on YouTube. There are 220 of my lectures on YouTube, I believe, and these young people tell me how they've stayed up all night watching them."

Irving is an absurd popinjay, but he's not the only Holocaust denier going the roads. Marine Le Pen's father Jean-Marie, the founder of the Front National in France, has frequently cast doubt on the reality of the death camps, and the notion that the Holocaust is a myth is depressingly common across the Arab world. But inconveniently for Irving and his ilk, we do have proof, and much of it is contained in a string of brilliant documentaries that have been made about the death camps over the years.

There have been lots of feature films as well of course, some of them very impressive, from Schindler's List to Son of Saul, but the true horror of the concentration camps seems too vast to be effectively captured by actors and a storyteller: it needs witnesses, and archive footage, and the best Holocaust documentaries have unflinchingly demonstrated the depths to which humanity can stoop.

What's most intriguing for modern observers is the way the Holocaust was swept under the carpet by politicians, journalists and film-makers in the years immediately after World War Two. It was too big, and too recent a horror to be tackled, perhaps, or maybe a shell-shocked world preferred to pretend it hadn't happened at all. As a consequence, dramas on the subject were few and far between, Hollywood avoiding the subject like the plague for over two decades, and two key documentaries that might have been released in the late 1940s were suppressed.

In 2014, it emerged that Alfred Hitchcock had helped his friend Sidney Bernstein edit a documentary from footage shot by British and Soviet army film units during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. The film was intended to inform the German people about the unspeakable atrocities that had been committed in their name.

Hitch had completed his work by September of 1945, but the finished film was shelved by the British authorities: Germany was under reconstruction, and the Allied military government there now felt that rubbing the German people's noses in the Holocaust wasn't going to get anyone anywhere. A restored version of Memory was released in 2015, and a documentary on the making of the film, Night Will Fall, followed.

It was shocking, upsetting, distressing in the extreme. And God love those cameramen: at one point during Night Will Fall, one of them, George Leonard, apologised for breaking down during his interview and says simply, "too painful".

None of that footage saw the light of day at the time, however, and as the death camps receded into history, the world started to forget. But from the mid-1950s on, a group of tenacious French film-makers began addressing the subject head on.

In 1956, Alain Resnais released a film called Night and Fog. It was short, just 32 minutes long, but utterly ­devastating: as Resnais' camera ­wandered the abandoned and overgrown camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek, a ­poignant voice-over described exactly what had gone on there - the torture, the ­experiments, starvations and mass killings. Gaullist censors were angry about footage of Jews being rounded up that included a French police officer, and the German authorities wanted it suppressed altogether. But it was shown at Cannes, and critically acclaimed.

The French had plenty of reasons to feel uneasy about the death camps and the Vichy regime's enthusiastic involvement, and in 1969 Marcel Ophüls delved further into a sordid past the Fifth Republic was trying very hard to forget. Sorrow and the Pity was a gruelling, four-hour investigation of how the people of Clermont-Ferrand had fared under Nazi occupation. Former resistance fighters described their campaigns against the Germans, but Ophüls' film also dealt with the Vichy collaborators who had taken part in the 'rafle', or rounding up of Jews.

Sorrow and the Pity made for uncomfortable viewing, but was in the park next to Claude Lanzmann's 1985 epic Shoah, an exhaustive documentary that burrowed its way to the heart of the Holocaust.

Lanzmann, a French-Jewish ­journalist and film-maker, spent 11 years making his nine-and-a-half-hour ­documentary, and faced danger, death threats and bankruptcy along the way. Shoah used no archive footage of the camps and relied entirely on the ­emotional ­testimonies of guards and ­victims. And when former Nazis wouldn't talk, ­Lanzmann resorted to hidden cameras and Bond-like subterfuge. It's an ­exhausting, grim and overwhelming film, but also a kind of masterpiece.

Lanzmann had embarked on his epic project to counter deniers like David Irving, and other fine documentaries have joined the fight. In Cheri Pugh and Bob Hercules' 2006 film Forgiving Dr Mengele, Eva Mozes Kor described her experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was experimented on by Josef Mengele, starved and injected with various diseases.

Paragraph 175 (2000) used the testaments of eye witnesses and survivors to tell the forgotten story of how homosexuals were murdered in their thousands by Hitler's regime.

All of this visual evidence is most inconvenient for far-right revisionists like Irving who, is still peddling his pro-Nazi sentiments at a hale and hearty 78.

According to the Daily Mail, he recently embarked on a regional lecture tour in the UK, and before Christmas addressed a crowd of well-wishers in Gateshead that amounted to four people - including the newspaper's reporter.

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