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Film / Denial

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Denial is a 2016 film that dramatises the libel suit brought against American historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz)note  by British writer David Irving (Timothy Spall) after Lipstadt called him a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite in one of her books. Since British law places the burden of proof on the defendant in libel cases, Lipstadt has to prove that she did not slander Irving by saying he created false evidence and misinterpreted existing evidence to deny the truth of the Holocaust.

Lipstadt is helped by an ace team of British lawyers, including solicitor Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson). When Lipstadt wants to testify on her own behalf and bring Holocaust survivors to the stand, however, the lawyers see Irving—who is acting as his own lawyer—as too dangerous a manipulator to allow him a chance at a cross-examination. And outside of the courtroom, the trial also gains a wealth of attention from the media, which spin the cases into a trial about the truth of the Holocaust.


Denial contains the following tropes:

  • Appeal to Vanity: Deborah's lawyers cleverly use this to get Irving to agree to have the case being decided by a judge rather than a jury, by arguing that the subject is so complex and sophisticated that the average person won't be able to understand it.
  • Army of Lawyers: For once, this is actually used on the good side. Deborah winds up with a dozen people working on her case, thanks to its historic importance, while Irving is alone on his side of the room, representing himself. Irving is somewhat Genre Savvy about this trope, however, as he's compared himself to David vs Goliath a few times, and is aware of how it will look to the reporters.
  • Attention Whore: David Irving, oh so much. The first time we see him he's jumping up in the audience of Deborah's lecture, waving money around and offering free copies of his books.
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  • Based on a True Story: The film is based on Lipstadt's memoir of the trial, which took place in the spring of 2000. The courtroom scenes are taken word-for-word from the transcript of the actual trial.
  • Blatant Lies: Irving in his post-trial interview actually tries to claim that the verdict means that he won the judgement. Deborah immediately refers to him as a "verdict denier"
  • Compliment Backfire: Deborah tells Anthony Julius that she hired him because a friend told her that he's a real "junkyard dog". She means this in a good way, but he doesn't quite get that. After she explains him what she actually meant, he then explains he's not actually going to be her "junkyard dog", as he is a solicitor, thus he will only prepare the case for a barrister (in this case Richard Rampton) to actually defend in court.
  • Conviction by Contradiction: Irving tries to disprove the Holocaust in this exact way, as Anthony notes: he looks for some tiny inconsistency in the testimonies, then makes the whole case seem to stand or fall on it. For instance, historian Robert Jan van Pelt (Mark Gatiss) shows blueprints of the Auschwitz gas chambers as described by the man who designed them, including holes in the roof used to drop in cyanide gas. Irving points out that no holes were found in the ruins of the chamber roof, and loudly declares: "No holes, no Holocaust!"
  • Courtroom Antics: The word "antics" is directly used when Deborah's team express their fear of what Irving might do if he had a jury to play to, hence their Appeal to Vanity above to get him to agree to having it decided by a judge.
  • Culture Clash: The film has some fun with the contrast between the outspoken Queens girl and her Stiff Upper Lip British lawyers. More seriously, she has trouble understanding the different attitude toward free speech, which makes it so hard to defend oneself in a libel case.
  • Deader Than Disco: Invoked in-universe. This is what ended up happening to Irving after the trial. He went from a highly successful popular historiannote  to a bankrupt bigoted Holocaust-denying neo-nazi discredited "historian".
  • Deadpan Snarker: Deborah Lipstadt, mostly about how the only thing her legal team allows her to decide on is who to ask for donations for funding the legal case.
  • Death Glare: Deborah gives Irving some good ones over the course of the film, but subverted in the case of Rampton; Deborah notices that he, rather than glaring at Irving, barely meets his eye at all during the trial, and broadcasts contempt and disgust with his voice and body language rather than passionate outrage. She acknowledges that it's very effective at getting under the skin of a man who thrives on conflict and expects to be challenged, but doesn't know what to do when people simply don't take him seriously.
  • Door Stopper: David Irving's diary spanning 20 years. It occupies all the top shelf cases of a single division in his home, and he says it's between 10 and 20 million words long. Deborah's team have to hire extra legal researchers and history students to actually find the useful material in there.
    • The judge's verdict is no lightweight either, being 334 pages long.
  • Dumbass Has a Point: Irving correctly calls out the Hitler diaries as fakes. To prove it's a fluke, he reverses his opinion days later.
  • Due to the Dead: The preparation for the trial includes a visit to Auschwitz, which both Deborah and van Pelt treat as a "shrine", eventually praying and singing a hymn over the ruins of the gas chamber where so many were killed.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: When two legal assistants go to Irving's house to gather evidence, they find him on the floor playing adoringly with his young daughter. The sweetness of the scene is rather soured later when it's revealed that he sings her a ditty about how she'll never marry outside the White race.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Irving, while making jaw-droppingly racist speeches to groups of like-minded individuals, is generally perfectly courteous to whoever he's speaking to at the moment.
  • Fiery Coverup: Auschwitz is in ruins because the Nazis wrecked it at the end of the war to cover up the Holocaust, the guide explains. This is why hard physical evidence of what happened there is difficult to come by.
  • A Fool for a Client: Irving acts as his own lawyer, and he does an impressive job of it...for a while.
    • This is the main reason Julius is adamant that survivors not be brought in to testify; a dispassionate cross-examination by a professional lawyer might just about be acceptable, but the thought of them being directly questioned by Irving, who will be doing everything he can to trip them up, humiliate them and accuse them of lying is the one thing that makes the composed Julius lose his cool.
  • Frivolous Lawsuit: The very lawsuit Irving launched against Lipstadt and Penguin that is the subject of this movie.
  • Golden Mean Fallacy: Prior to Lipstadt writing her book that Irving would sue over, she notes that several student newspapers (some of which are even run by Jews) run adverts proclaiming Holocaust denial, under the reasoning that "both sides deserve to be heard". Which ignores that one side is demonstrably wrong.
  • Graceful Loser: Irving attempts to do this, congratulating and extending his hand to Rampton, but everyone on Deborah's side are utterly sick of the sight of him by this point and completely ignore him. Irving is less graceful after they exit the court, where he makes a ridiculous attempt to claim that the verdict is actually in his favour.
  • The Heckler: Irving acts as this to Deborah in an early scene when he disrupts her lecture by challenging her to a debate and offering $1,000 to anyone who can disprove his claims. Naturally, he's having the whole thing filmed.
  • Historical Beauty Update: The real Deborah Lipstadt was not as beautiful as Rachel Weisz in the film.
  • Implausible Deniability: Irving claims he's not racist even as his own diaries and recorded speeches show him making blatantly racist statements.
  • Ironic Name: Joe Crooks is the name of Emory University's chief legal counsel who immeadiately offers to help fund Lipstadt soon after Irving begins the lawsuit.
  • "Just Joking" Justification: Irving uses this to deny his racism when the defense attorneys show video clips of him making racist jokes at past lectures.
  • Meaningful Name: Deborah says that her mother named her after the Biblical judge, charging her with the obligation to stand up and fight when her people are attacked.
  • Moving the Goalposts: Irving continuously redefines things to suit himself, both in his history books and in court. Afterwards he tries to argue to a disbelieving Jeremy Paxman that the verdict was actually quite favourable to him.
  • Not So Stoic: Julius is generally very composed, but he is visibly emotional at the thought of letting Irving undermine and humiliate survivors on the stand.
  • Oh, Crap!: Deborah has this when the Judge questions whether Irving honestly believing what he says because he is a racist and anti-Semite can refute their claim that he's deliberately lying.
  • One Dose Fits All: Deborah points out that Fred Leuchter, the supposed "execution expert" who claimed to debunk Auschwitz as being an extermination camp because more gas was used to delouse lice than kill prisoners, assumed this when comparing them. In reality, it takes twenty times more gas to kill lice than humans.
  • One-Word Title: The film's title is a lot more concise than the book's, which was History On Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: David Irving is not just a Holocaust denier, he is an all-purpose hater: Jews, blacks, women, you name it.
  • Pull the Thread: Used to GREAT effect against Irving during the examination about Auschwitz. So the gas chamber was built to delouse corpses? And it has steel doors that hermetically seal because it doubles as an air raid shelter for the guards... who were garrisoned two and a half miles away? At a time they weren't under threat of air raids? Also, why delouse a corpse you're about to incinerate? Irving is eventually forced to admit that he's a Hitler historian rather than a Holocaust historian, and can't provide a good answer to Rampton asking him why, if that's true, he doesn't keep his mouth shut about the Holocaust.
  • Riches to Rags: The discrediting of David Irving also brought him real-life financial ruin. He was saddled with a £2 million (US$3.2 million) bill in Penguin's legal feesnote  and what had been Penguin's attorneys had him declared bankrupt over this in 2002.
  • Some of My Best Friends Are X: Irving uses a more-clueless-than-usual version of this when he argues that he can't be racist because he employs black and Asian servants, and "they were all very attractive girls with very nice breasts." The dumbfounded reporter has to ask him to repeat it.
  • The Spock: Deborah's legal team maintain a degree of emotional distance that Deborah finds frustrating, mistaking it for heartlessness or disrespect for the dead, though she later accepts that they are simply focusing their passion into doing the most professional job they can.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: It takes a while for Deborah to see that British reserve is not heartlessness or apathy.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: The case is sometimes like this for Deborah, who is frustrated with many of the decisions that her lawyers make about how to win, which leads to some noisy arguments.
  • Title Drop: The word "denial" is repeatedly used in the context of Holocaust-denial, but it is also used when Rampton finally convinces Deborah to be The Unfought, and calls it "an act of self-denial".
  • The Unfought: Deborah never actually goes head-to-head with Irving in a cross-examination, and indeed the only time she speaks directly to him is when he gatecrashes her lecture and heckles her. This is because Deborah is convinced (albeit very reluctantly) not to take to the stand herself, or allow survivors to do so, on the grounds that it would look like there was actually a legitimate debate to be had on the subject. Deborah is well aware that this will make it easy for Irving to say she's a coward (and indeed he does after he loses,) but she trusts that her legal team know what they're doing.
  • Would Be Rude to Say "Genocide": Proved to be the grist of Irving's argument during the trial.
  • You Have Got to Be Kidding Me!: Deborah's face has this written all over it when Irving's opening statement describes the label of "denier" as being "a verbal yellow star".


Example of: