In her youth, my wife was close friends with a woman who’d been exposed in utero to the sedative thalidomide and consequently had been born with a radically shortened right arm. Part of her cross to bear in life was that she was often hit on by paraphiliacs aroused by her tiny, handless limb. On at least one occasion she took pity one of these oddly focused suitors and indulged him by posing sleeveless for his camera.
The phenomenon of stump fetishism is just one of the myriad facets of the thalidomide experience touched on NoBody’s Perfect, a complicated and mordantly funny 2008 documentary by German filmmaker Niko von Glasow opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. At one point von Glasow asks one of his female subjects, Doris Pakendorf, whether she’s ever had a relationship with a man who found her armlessness “pretty.” Pakendorf, a lithe and poised presence who’s rarely shown without a cigarette or wineglass between her toes, warily answers in the affirmative. “Who was that?” he probes. “A mistake,” replies Pakendorf in a clipped tone that warns von Glasow—an often disconcertingly impolitic interviewer—to back the hell off.
This understated but charged exchange exemplifies the strengths that make NoBody’s Perfect a gale of fresh air compared to the average disability doc. My years as a film critic, quite frankly, have taught me to approach the genre with caution if not dread. Though not as reliably oppressive as teen sex comedies or Gerard Butler vehicles, these films too often carry artificiality, humorlessness, and sentimentality to the point of emotional extortion—and with a grating denial of their own prurience.
I’m thinking, to cite just one particularly egregious example, of 39 Pounds of Love, Dani Menkin’s coercively “inspirational” 2005 portrait of Ami Ankilewitz, an unbelievably emaciated 34-year-old Israeli quadriplegic born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type II, a rare genetic disorder his pediatrician predicted would kill him by the age of six. The narrative takes the form of an unnecessarily protracted—and for Ankilewitz, life-threateningly stressful—road trip across America to confront the blameless medical man with the fact of Ankilewitz’s continued existence. Along the way, Menkin crudely exploits his subject’s spectacular deformity as a found special effect. “Bad” people are shown recoiling from unexpected encounters with a living skeleton; “good” people are shown projecting upon Ankilewetz’s wizened frame saintly attributes of courage, spiritual beauty, and a richness of wisdom unavailable to the able-bodied. It’s about as pure and dreary a cinematic expression of what disability activists call the “gimp mystique” as I’ve ever seen, and if Ankilewitz is ostensibly playing along with Denkin’s tainted agenda, you have to wonder how much latitude this utterly dependent man was given to do otherwise by the smiling, cooing bipeds around him.
Von Glasow, who is himself a “thalidomide” (that’s how the people in the film refer to themselves; others apparently prefer “thalidomider”) with deformed hands projecting from what should have been his elbows, has no patience with the gimp mystique. He makes that clear early in the film, in a conversation with a limbless and cerebral jurist named Andreas Meyer. “I mean, we do suffer because of our short arms and legs, when we fall off the toilet, or when we can’t scratch ourselves properly,” says von Glasow.
“It is a considerable burden,” concedes Meyer.
“But it isn’t just a considerable burden,” bristles von Glasow. “It’s really shit.”
Von Glasow and the 11 other thalidomides he profiles have the German pharmaceutical firm Grünenthal to thank for the shit they’re in. The compound, marketed in Germany as Contergan starting in 1957, was initially hailed as a wonder drug for its sedative and antinausea effects as well as its low toxicity, which rendered it useless as a suicide tool. It was aggressively touted in Germany and Britain as a cure for morning sickness. The first afflicted child was born in 1956, before the drug even hit the shelves, but not until 1961 was the link proven to the satisfaction of Grünenthal, which took thalidomide off the market and then settled the ensuing criminal case out of court. While it was available, thalidomide imposed significant disabilities on somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 children—though only 17 in the United States, where the drug was briefly distributed on a sample basis but rejected by the FDA—and caused thousands of miscarriages.
On paper NoBody’s Perfect may not sound especially promising: in a retread of the theme of the 2003 feel-good British comedy Calendar Girls (and the true story behind it), von Glasow enlists his fellow thalidomides—six women and five men—to join him in posing for a calendar of nude photographs. The resulting portraits turn out to be as appealing as they are revealing, but what’s far more crucial to the documentary’s success is what happens along the way. This is fundamentally a film about high-powered conversationalists who happen to share disabilities of a common origin, and unless intelligence and insight are undiagnosed side effects of thalidomide, von Glasow has patently stacked the deck with the best and brightest among the available pool of subjects. Thalidomide opera star Thomas Quasthoff doesn’t make an appearance, but those who do are an almost ridiculously accomplished bunch. Melancholy and introspective Theo Zavelberg is a skilled gardener and arborist, which seems incomprehensible given his truncated arms and gnarled hands—until you see his prehensile manipulation of a cigarette and lighter. Limbless, egg-shaped Stefan Fricke is an astrophysicist. Flipper-armed Fred Dove is a BBC radio host. Legless Kim Morton is a municipal politician in Belfast who spearheaded a successful campaign to extract compensation for thalidomides from the British pharmaceutical firm that licensed the drug from Grünenthal. Armless Bianca Vogel is a world-class dressage rider. And so on.
In other hands than von Glasow’s, this material could easily have slid into “handi-capable” bathos about the inconquerability of the human spirit and the irrelevance of physical wholeness. Anyone undertaking such a project would surely opt to focus on the charming and indomitably cheerful Morton, who alone among the cast says things like “You can’t believe that there’s nothing you can’t do: I can do anything except walk.”
With a characteristic lack of tact, von Glasow attributes Morton’s upbeat attitude to her striking good looks (“You’re just also a bit lucky, you know?”). And with a characteristic lack of vanity, he doesn’t edit out the ensuing uncomfortable silence between them. Morton’s monolithic optimism is also offset by the bleak and profane wit of British actor Mat Fraser, whose response to the proposal that proceeds from the calendar’s sales should go to a “good cause” is a veritable manifesto against the gimp mystique: “Just because it’s disabled people, it shouldn’t automatically become a charity event. . . . I want the money. Why do you always have to turn it into a big orgy of compassion?” (Fraser, the very proud possessor of an impressively large penis, is the one calendar model who requires absolutely no coaxing, though he does insist that the photographer’s studio be well heated.)
It’s Fraser too who finds an existential silver lining in the fact that thalidomides at least know who to blame for their plight: “We never have to go, ‘Why me, God?’ which must be a terrible dilemma. I’ve often thought about disabled people who have no reason. Sometimes it must fuck with their head a bit.”
Ceaselessly prodded by von Glasow, these talking heads on tiny bodies discuss their shared condition from every conceivable angle. They talk articulately and without self-pity about their sex lives, their families, their anger, their religious beliefs, their suicidal impulses, their lust for life, their responses to being stared at in public, the social progress disabled people have made in their lifetimes, the often crazily contingent circumstances that led to their fateful exposure to thalidomide, and their reluctance to expose their flabby middle-aged bellies (which is the body part that several feel most self-conscious about). The whole thing culminates with a cheery, well-lubricated dinner party where Morton exhorts her German counterparts to get organized and force Grünenthal to pay them reparations on par with what British thalidomides receive and Fraser brings down the house by complaining that it’s time to change the subject already: “Here we are, a load of thalidomides banging on about fucking thalidomide again!”
NoBody’s Perfect isn’t a perfect film: There is, for example, a Michael Moore-ish bit of business involving von Glasow’s halfhearted attempts to confront the wealthy scion of the family that owns the Grünenthal corporation. But if you’re up for spending 84 sugar-free minutes in the company of a dozen thoughtful, funny, and profoundly resourceful grown-ups, this is your doc.
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