Thalidomide movie revives old anger 50 years on

10th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

9 November 2007, Berlin (dpa) - Thalidomide, a medicine which caused horrific birth defects in 10,000 children worldwide 50 years ago, comes back to haunt Germans. A two-part TV special on public television this week - called "Side Effects" in English - is to dramatize one of the worst-ever blunders by a drug company. Sold over the counter as a sedative, and used by pregnant mothers as a remedy for morning sickness, the drug caused unborn children to develop with abnormally short limbs, such as flipper-lik

9 November 2007

Berlin (dpa) - Thalidomide, a medicine which caused horrific birth defects in 10,000 children worldwide 50 years ago, comes back to haunt Germans.

A two-part TV special on public television this week - called "Side Effects" in English - is to dramatize one of the worst-ever blunders by a drug company.

Sold over the counter as a sedative, and used by pregnant mothers as a remedy for morning sickness, the drug caused unborn children to develop with abnormally short limbs, such as flipper-like hands emerging from the shoulders. Other infants had eye and ear defects.

Gruenenthal, a German company which has 800 million euros in current annual sales, put thalidomide on sale in October 1957 and did not take it off the market as a sedative till 1961.

The drug, now out of patent protection, is used today as a treatment for leprosy and a rare form of blood cancer.

Germany was hardest hit by thalidomide, with about half, or 5,000, of all cases worldwide.

Many of the 2,700 German victims still alive are bitter at what they see as the inadequate 100 million Deutschmarks (73 million dollars at current rates) paid out to them in a 1970 settlement by the Gruenenthal company of Aachen, close to the Dutch border.

The German government contributed a matching amount to the relief fund, which pays modest monthly stipends to the survivors.

Margit Hudelmaier, chairwoman of the association of victims, said other countries' legal systems had ensured more generous compensation.

Middle-aged by now, the victims often suffer from arthritis caused by a lifetime of awkward movements.

Being regarded as a freak is bad enough.

Anna, 46, who has no legs, says she finds it just as irritating to have people fawn over her agility amid disability. "I always feel like a circus horse performing for applause," she said crossly.

The two-part TV dramatization tells the story of a fictitious lawyer whose wife takes "just one tablet" - "Eine einzige Tablette," as the German title puts it - and gives birth to a child with no arms and only one leg.

"What's the matter? Show me my baby," says the mother, Vera Wegener, amid a ghastly silence in the delivery room. "Don't worry," says a doctor, "you can put it in an orphanage." A doctor calls the "deformed" daughter "horrible."

Adolf Winkelmann for WDR television explained, "In those days people did not speak of a 'disability'. The terms they used were pretty insensitive."

Part one shows the lawyer gradually becoming convinced that the birth defect was caused by the medicine.

The second part of the dramatization re-enacts the legal battle for compensation, with the corporate lawyers hoping to delay until the case is out of time.

The producers spent 18 months in their own legal clinch with Gruenenthal and the real lawyer who led the compensation fight, with both claiming they had been misrepresented.

Changes were made to the script. The dramatization comes with disclaimers insisting that the characters do not represent true persons, and Winkelmann said about half the points objected to in the script never made it into the film anyway on artistic grounds.

Several weeks ago, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court struck down temporary injunctions that had kept the programme off the air, and said they would hear substantive argument afterwards about whether the TV special was defamatory.

Michael Souvignier, the film's producer, says that the latter-day legal fight shows Germany still has not fully come to terms with the disaster.

As director Winkelmann admitted, the film treads a fine line between exhibiting the victims as oddities and bringing the viewer to see the tragedy from the victims' point of view, particularly the mockery and exclusion they had to endure.

The disabled girl, Katrin, played by Denise Marko, is shown in the film dressed up as she waits in vain for any of her schoolmates to arrive at her birthday party.

The mother says, "This was the most awful day of my life, not the day Katrin was born."

The criminal trial in Germany of eight Gruenenthal executives and the firm's proprietor, Hermann Wirtz, was abandoned in December 1970, shortly after the civil settlement, on the grounds that their guilt was insufficient to justify a continued legal odyssey.

Variety, the entertainment newspaper, reported last month that Warner Home Video Germany has picked up domestic home entertainment rights to the movie and will release it as a double DVD on Friday.

DPA

Subject: German news

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