When I was first asked to make "Holocaust on Trial," I was unsure how to respond. I had recently completed another grueling documentary for the BBC about the Bosnian war, and I had promised myself that my next project would lead me into more uplifting territory. The prospect of immersing myself immediately in the terrible events of the Nazis' genocidal Final Solution and the disturbing business of Holocaust denial seemed uninviting.
The lawsuit brought against American historian Deborah Lipstadt by British historian David Irving proved to be as much about Holocaust denial as about libel.
But as I learned more about the strange legal confrontation that was already unfolding in room 73 of the High Court in London, I became fascinated. A controversial historian, David Irving, was suing for libel a Jewish-American academic, Deborah Lipstadt, who had accused him of being a distorter of history and a Holocaust denier. Irving was mounting his case alone, without legal support, taking on the legal big guns of a major publisher. The drama of the event was obvious. But it was also clear that the trial would have a significance beyond the specifics of a libel action. It would inevitably involve a detailed re-examination of the Holocaust itself.
I had little time to make up my mind about the project. With the trial already in progress, and the obvious need to complete the program as soon as possible, I had to commit within hours. I parked my plans for happier films and got to work.
The immediate challenge was the sheer bulk of material. The courtroom transcripts, which would eventually total thousands of pages, were already piling up. Since cameras are not allowed in British courtrooms, I would have to reconstruct, with actors, the vital exchanges. That intrigued me, since part of my film-making life over the past 30 years has concerned the hybridization of documentary and drama.
It was impossible, Woodhead writes, not to be riveted by the spectacle of Irving challenging the large defense team inside Room 73 of London's High Court.
Since the 1970s, I have made a series of journalistic reconstructions, often about events in eastern Europe, using smuggled transcripts and tape recordings. This enabled me to bring to television stories that were inaccessible to conventional documentary techniques. I had used the form, for example, to make films about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the birth of Lech Walesa's "Solidarity" trade-union movement in the Polish shipyards.
But I had never before had to grapple with such a torrent of material at such a speed. It would have been impossible without the tireless work of my co-producers Daniel Korn and Mark Radice, who began to familiarize themselves with the daily outpouring of transcripts from the courtroom and to identify the crucial exchanges.
We visited the court as regularly as possible, to witness the extraordinary drama being played out there. It was impossible not to be riveted by the spectacle of David Irving, tall and imposing in his neat blue suit, challenging the bewigged ranks of lawyers and experts for the defense. There was no jury; both sides had agreed to accept the conclusion of a single judge. Each day, about 50 journalists and members of the public packed the public seats. Many of the spectators were elderly people who clearly had a painful personal stake in the outcome of a trial about the horrors of the Holocaust.
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As I sat there, trying to keep a director's eye open for details of personality and mannerism, it was at times hard to take in the unimaginable tragedy that was being quietly explored in an English courtroom. Participants debated documents about the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians by Nazi death squads, pursued disagreements about the amount of fuel required to burn thousands of corpses, and so on. At times, Irving clashed with expert witnesses, barely preserving a bitter composure, and the judge on occasion tersely reprimanded him. For all the grotesqueness of his arguments, it was impossible not to be amazed by Irving's determination and staying power as day followed day. And it was equally impossible not to be dismayed, as the head-spinning claims of Holocaust denial collided with the awful realities of the Final Solution.
Along with trying to keep up with the trial, I also had to gather other material vital for our program, including the forensic evidence to set alongside the court proceedings. We assembled a team of historians as expert witnesses on various aspects of the Holocaust and interviewed them at length. For me, this involved a crash course in an area of recent history with which I'd had only a layman's knowledge. I came to know the details of the gathering nightmare of the Nazi assault on Europe's Jews, and the extraordinary distortions of the Holocaust deniers.
We also had to view and select a huge amount of shocking archival film. Our archival researcher Rosalind Bentley gathered material from Washington and Moscow, and together we embarked on the grim task of sifting through the visual record of the 20th century's greatest tragedy. Some of the images, we felt, were just too ghastly to put on television, though we also recognized the obligation not to sanitize the awful realities we were presenting. It was often a difficult judgment, and I can only hope we made the right decisions.
The Wannsee mansion near Berlin, where the architects of the Final Solution laid plans for the extermination of Europe's Jews.
Alongside keeping up with the trial, interviewing experts, and selecting archival footage, I also had to plan a filming expedition to Germany and Poland. We needed to film at Wannsee, the house near Berlin where Nazi leaders planned the logistics of the Final Solution in January 1942, and at Auschwitz. Almost 60 years later, on a bright sunny morning in a handsome lakeside suburb of Berlin, it was still possible to feel a frisson of recognition in the room
where Adolf Eichmann and his fellow Nazi bureaucrats orchestrated the mechanics of genocide. It's a simple museum now, but as author Robert Harris says in our film, "It's a very haunting place. Something has seeped into the brickwork there."
I had never been to Auschwitz. I suppose I had always been reluctant to face the place where the Nazis' greatest crimes found their ultimate expression. The reality was numbing for all of us on the film team. The sheer scale of the thing, still clearly visible in the grim lines of huts, the railway ramp where hundreds of thousands were selected for the gas chambers, the ugly ruins of the gas chambers themselves—it was almost impossible to absorb the reality of what had happened there. I filmed with cameraman Roger Chapman over three days under gloomy skies, alone except for the occasional small group of visiting schoolchildren. We did what we had to do, and we were all glad when it was over. It was only afterwards, I think, that we properly registered the enormity of what we had seen.
The main gate at Auschwitz, through which an estimated two million victims of Nazi genocide passed.
Back in London, I now had to grapple urgently with the job of reconstructing the courtroom exchanges. The trial was moving towards a conclusion, and we wanted to air the film in Britain as soon as possible after the judgment. Production designer Jim Glenn had visited the courtroom several times, and I asked him to build a set that would preserve the geography and style of the court, while locating it against a black limbo background to minimize any distraction.
I was glad to be able to work with casting director Doreen Jones, who had found the cast for many of my previous dramatized documentaries. We had very little time now to choose our actors, especially since they would have to learn many pages of difficult transcript in just a few days. It was not easy to find a strong actor for the unwelcome and difficult role of representing David Irving. I was very happy that John Castle felt willing to take on the part. He was well aware that he would have to give conviction to many arguments and ideas he found unacceptable. But he felt it was important to bring to a television audience the issues explored in the trial.
The actor John Castle played the part of David Irving in "Holocaust on Trial."
We filmed the courtroom reconstructions for six days in a London studio. It was intense and uncomfortable work, sometimes testing the limits of the actors' own tolerances as they revisited the ghastly debates between Irving and the expert witnesses about the minutiae of extermination. Sitting in the editing room a few days later, I felt they'd done a remarkable job in conveying the strange reality of what had happened in the courtroom.
We had almost completed the program when the judgment against David Irving was announced. Looking back to my initial hesitation about taking on the project, despite all the chilling material I'd had to deal with, and despite the challenging urgency of the schedule, I was very glad that I'd decided to accept the assignment. Like all the really worthwhile programs I've worked on, I reckon it taught me things I needed to know. I only hope it can do the same for the people who see it.
||Leslie Woodhead, the producer of "Holocaust on Trial," has made numerous documentaries since the 1960s. His most recent efforts include a film about the Srebenica Massacre, which won Grand Prize at the Banff TV Festival, and a nonfiction feature, "Endurance," about an Olympic gold medal long-distance runner. In 1992, Woodhead received an Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth for his services to television.
Photos: (7) Courtesy of Leslie Woodhead.
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