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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Denial

by director Mick Jackson

Like many people, I greet each day’s news cycle with mounting outrage and alarm. We move deeper into a new Age of Untruth. Demagogues and zealots fill the air with assertions, half-truths and just plain lies. “Climate change is a hoax,” “the President is a Muslim,” “vaccines cause autism,” “Evolution is unproven.” Lying big has become a routine way of advancing political or ideological agendas.

I wasn't far into reading David Hare’s script of Denial before I realized that, although its events happened 15 or more years ago, the issues are vividly relevant today. Its subject is Holocaust denial, one of the biggest, most insidious lies of all—the brazen assertion that there was no mass extermination of Europe’s Jews, no cattle trucks, no gas chambers, no crematoria, no ashes. It never happened, say the deniers. It’s a myth.

Flashback forty years. It is winter 1972. A bone-chillingly cold, misty morning. Alone, I stand with my feet in stagnant water at the edge of a small pond. As a young documentary director for the BBC, I’m preparing to shoot a scene the next day—part of a thirteen-hour television history of man, science and morality, “The Ascent of Man.” Tomorrow, on camera, a distinguished scientist and philosopher, Dr. Jacob Bronowski, will walk into this pond, and reach his hand into the water, pulling up a handful of sediment and mud, making a now-famous plea for tolerance. The place is Auschwitz. The sediment is ashes.

Right now, as his director, I have practical worries. “Is it safe? Too deep? Will he slip?” I step forward and reach down into the pond. OK…Not too deep. Then, with a sudden shock, I take in what it is I am holding…In this moment, the ashes of the Holocaust are resting in the palm of my hand, touching my own skin. I shiver. The emotion I feel is difficult to describe, impossible to forget. And impossible to reconcile with the idea that anyone could deliberately deny the truth of what happened here. How can you not be angry—blazingly, righteously so?

That is the theme of Denial. In the film, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), a passionate, self-possessed and articulate professor of religion from Atlanta, has to face this same dilemma. In one of her books, she has called David Irving a Holocaust denier and he has sued her for libel. At stake in an epic courtroom battle is the truth of the Holocaust itself. Did it really happen? Or is it a myth? The verdict will decide.

Deborah must make a choice. Does she confront Irving and speak out powerfully and emotionally for the truth? For the victims? Or must she subdue her own feelings and let the lawyers alone confront him with their cold legal logic? What if they lose? Then the Holocaust “didn’t happen?”

It is a story in which I have a personal stake. As would anyone with any concern for the truth.