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Behind the Scenes

"NOVA" recreates the libel trial brought against Deborah Lipstadt.

by Naomi Pfefferman

October 26, 2000 | 8:00 pm

The libel trial brought against historian Deborah Lipstadt by Holocaust denier David Irving has become the subject of a NOVA presentation.

The libel trial brought against historian Deborah Lipstadt by Holocaust denier David Irving has become the subject of a NOVA presentation.

Every Jew in Los Angeles cheered when Holocaust denier David Irving lost his libel suit against author and historian Deborah Lipstadt this year. But the actual proceedings against the former UCLA professor remained shrouded in mystery (cameras aren't allowed inside British courts).

Now a "NOVA" episode, to air Oct. 31, 8 p.m. on KCET, provides a peek inside the trial. British director Leslie Woodhead used actual trial transcripts to dramatize key exchanges and to recreate them verbatim with actors. Interwoven are interviews with historians and archival footage of the Shoah.

The highlights depict how Lipstadt's attorney, Richard Rampton, forced the denier to admit some of his theories were wrong. When Irving insists the early gassing trucks were experimental, Rampton whisks out a document proving 97,000 Jews were killed by just three vans in five weeks. "That is a very substantial achievement, if you work it out with a pocket calculator," Irving retorts.

"Clever SS," Rampton replies.

When the denier insists tons of corpses couldn't have been burned at Auschwitz, given the dearth of coke supplies, Rampton produces a patent proving the crematoria ran mostly on human fat emissions.

Nevertheless, Irving quibbles at every turn: At one point, he testily complains the facts and figures may be of interest to Holocaust scholars, but not to a Hitler historian like himself. "If you appreciate the difference," he tells Rampton.

The wig-coifed barrister coolly fires back, "I do not think there is a difference."

"NOVA" senior producer Melanie Wallace, who helped adapt the film, originally made for Britain's Channel Four, for PBS, concedes the subject is outside the science show's usual realm. "But the deniers use pseudo-science to make their claims," she says. "And we wanted to use science to debunk them."

Lipstadt, who's now writing a book on her experience, told a "NOVA" science writer that Irving can't milk the trial for publicity. "No one is going to seriously review his books in the future. His reputation has been totally stripped bare. He was hoisted on his own petard," she said.

But Irving isn't contrite. "He says the judge didn't get it. [That] we bought off the judge," Lipstadt said. "Before, he engaged in Holocaust denial. Now, he also engages in verdict denial."

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