NEW YORK (JTA)—Before the most dramatic episode of her professional life became a movie, Deborah Lipstadt had some work to do.
No, she didn’t have to make some last-minute changes to the script or take a crash course in acting. Her job: To teach Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz how to talk like a Jewish woman from Queens.
Weisz, who grew up in London, portrays Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian, in the film Denial, which hit select theaters on September 30. The film tells the story of Lipstadt’s dramatic win in British court against a prominent Holocaust denier, David Irving. It was a high-profile case that made the Holocaust front-page news in 2000, and unequivocally refuted Holocaust denial at a time when the tragedy was fading from living memory.
But before Weisz donned a red wig and delivered striking defenses of the Holocaust and free speech, she had to learn to sound just like Lipstadt.
“She would call me and say, ‘Record for me how you say ‘I’ll call you.’ Record for me how you say ‘goodnight,’” Lipstadt recalls. Weisz’s attention to detail paid off.
“She got my accent,” Lipstadt says. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, had criticized Irving’s falsification of Holocaust history in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust. In 1996, Irving sued her for libel in British court, where the burden of proof lies with the defendant. The movie depicts how Lipstadt won the case, exposing Irving as an intentional falsifier of Holocaust history.
Lipstadt acknowledges that she had thought about the trial’s cinematic potential. Still, when producers first approached her about Denial in 2008, she laughed— the same reaction, she recalls, that she had when she found out Irving was suing her.
“When you sign over a book, you are essentially giving them control over your story,” she says. “You’re not going to be able to say, ‘No, that’s not right, I don’t like that, don’t include this.’ So what I kept querying them about is, this is a movie about truth. Do you understand you have to stick to the truth?”
The finished product, Lipstadt says, hews closely to the truth. The story heightens her tension with her lawyers and combines a string of meetings with Holocaust survivors into one encounter. But the courtroom scenes are taken verbatim from the record, and dramatic scenes—from Irving ambushing Lipstadt at a lecture to a tense Shabbat dinner with British Jewish leaders—happened more or less as they play out on screen.
Decades ago, Lipstadt says she playfully imagined Meryl Streep portraying her in a movie. But she was very happy with how Weisz captured her character and interactions—from her forthright confidence to the culture clash with her lawyers. The orange scarf Weisz wears in the film’s promotional poster is the same one Lipstadt wore on a recent Friday in New York.
As a child of Holocaust refugees, Weisz had a personal connection to the movie. And because she is Jewish, Lipstadt says, it was easier for Weisz to slip into Hebrew when the script called for it.
“She was unbelievable,” Lipstadt says of Weisz. “She’s a professional’s professional. I think she would have brought to this the same professional quality even if she hadn’t been the child of two refugees because she’s such a great actress.”
The movie’s title, Lipstadt says, refers both to Holocaust denial and to the self-denial she had to practice when she refrained from testifying. Standing on the side of a set of a movie about your life, she says, didn’t feel that different.
“Everybody has a job—big, little, it’s all important,” she says. “I didn’t have a job. It was my story. It’s similar in the trial. Everybody had a job. I didn’t have a job. It was learning how to be to the side, learning to let others speak for you in the trial and act for you.”
The movie keeps the drama alive by focusing much of the plot on Lipstadt’s conflict with her lawyers. Throughout much of the film, Lipstadt attempts to coax her reserved British legal team to allow her and Holocaust survivors to take the stand.
“There were moments that I wish had gotten more play in the movie,” she says. “The movie I would have made would have been 3½ hours, maybe four hours.”
At times, filming felt almost too spot-on for Lipstadt. A central scene takes place at Auschwitz, where Lipstadt and one of her lawyers meet to gather evidence. The filming caused Lipstadt to relive some of the experiences, which felt “very strange, and I tried to stay as far out of sight lines as possible.”
But the movie’s central message, she says, is about the need to affirm historical truth, uncomfortable as it may be. And in an age where Lipstadt says anti-Semitism is again rising, she is grateful to have played a role in preserving Holocaust memory.
“I got a chance to be out there on the front lines,” she says. “I got a chance to fight the good fight, and I know so many people—Jews, African-Americans, gays, people who have faced prejudice, but certainly Jews—who would want the chance to fight the good fight. And I feel very lucky.”