By Cynthia Citron
This past weekend I saw two intense biographical documentaries dealing with completely opposing viewpoints on the Holocaust.
The first, “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe,” told of the melancholy meanderings of the Austrian writer/playwright/philosopher who, at the height of his career in the 1920s and ‘30s was one of the most widely read and respected writers in the world.
The second, “Denial,” is, in my view, one of the two best Holocaust films (if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron) ever made. The other is “Schindler’s List”.
The film about Stefan Zweig, previewed at the Goethe Institute in Los Angeles, is the Austrian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film in the upcoming Oscar race. It begins with the 1936 conference of the writers of PEN (an acronym for the international company of Poets, Essayists, and Novelists) who came from 50 countries to participate in the 10-day event held that year in Buenos Aires.
The opening scene is of a banquet hall that would rival anything seen at Downton Abbey. The table settings are enhanced by a literal garden of brightly colored flowers that run down the center of the table from one end to the other. Stefan Zweig, the honoree, is the keynote speaker of the evening. But after dinner he, a confirmed pacifist, is the lone dissenter in the political discussion condemning Germany’s activities in Europe.
“I cannot write out of hatred,” he says.
As a Jew, he left Austria in 1934 for England and in 1939 he married his former secretary, Lotte Altman. A year later they left Europe altogether, living for a short time in New York City before moving on to Petropolis, a small town north of Rio de Janeiro that housed a large contingent of German emigres.
Although they loved Brazil, Zweig became more and more depressed by Hitler’s depredations in Europe and in 1942 he and Lotte committed suicide together.
This beautifully wrought film was written and directed by Maria Schrader, and she was present at the screening to talk about Stefan Zweig.
The second film, “Denial,” was one of the most powerful depictions of the aftermath of the Holocaust that I’ve ever seen. A true story, it tells of the trial in 1998 of Deborah Lipstadt, a professor born in New York who was sued for libel for supposedly defaming the reputation of David Irving, a historian whose major pursuit was denying the Holocaust.
In an early scene, Dr. Lipstadt is giving a lecture about the false claims made by Holocaust deniers. She says they claim that the killings were not systematic, that the number of people killed was wildly overestimated, that there were no special facilities built for the purpose of killing Jews, and that the Holocaust myth was made up by Jews to gain support for the State of Israel.
David Irving, who attended the lecture, engages in a ferocious argument with Lipstadt and later sues her for libel. Because he is English the trial takes place in Britain, where the law identifies the defendant to be presumed guilty until proven innocent—which is the exact opposite of the way a defendant is identified in America.
Lipstadt flies to London, where she engages a brilliant team of lawyers whose strategy is distinctly different from the one she was anticipating, and she fights them every step of the way. Until, as the trial gets underway, she comes to understand that their focus is to undermine Irving’s credibility as a historian and prove that he intentionally falsified the facts in order to deny the Holocaust and to deny Hitler’s knowledge of and participation in the killings of the Jews.
In the process of building their case, the feisty Lipstadt, played by the incredibly gifted Rachel Weisz, and her lawyers, led by the impeccable lead counsel (Tom Wilkinson), travel to Auschwitz to see the site as it remains following its demolition by the Germans after the war.
This extended scene as they walk around the hauntingly quiet camp, photographed in foggy black and white, is the most devastating depiction of the camp I’ve ever seen. Devoid of its gaunt and haggard prisoners, the site is captured by the camera as it roams around in total silence. Rooms full of discarded shoes, empty wooden bunks, piles of remaining stones that formed the crematoriums, and the steps that led to the gas chambers.
Back in London at the trial, when shown the photos, Irving claimed that the building shown was not a gas chamber but was built as an air raid shelter for the troops housed nearby. But Richard Rampton (Wilkinson), who had measured the distance by walking it, determined that the supposed “shelter” was three miles from the troops’ barracks, and questioned how the troops could possibly get to it in time to save themselves.
It was with a myriad of questions like this that eventually won the case for Lipstadt and discredited Irving, who was shown to have deliberately misrepresented historical evidence to promote Holocaust denial. The English court determined that Irving was an active Holocaust denier, antisemite, and racist, who “for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence”.
The fate of these two extraordinary films has apparently been decided already. “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” is scheduled to open in Los Angeles shortly.
“Denial” has opened and closed in Los Angeles after an incredibly short run. That’s a great pity, as everyone ought to be aware of the subject of Holocaust denial and how it was refuted by the courageous woman who lectures on that subject to this day at Emory University in Atlanta. Perhaps this film will be better received if and when it arrives on Netflix.