Niko von Glasow’s first documentary feature, Nobody’s Perfect, could have been about one of the most vile corporate crimes of the 20th century: the manufacture and sale of the anti-anxiety drug Thalidomide between 1957 and 1961 by the German pharmaceutical company Grünenthal to pregnant mothers suffering from morning sickness, even after the drug was proven to cause birth defects. Three thousand children died, and 7,000 more were born with disabilities usually affecting the extremities, such as abnormally short arms and legs. Not interested in making a Grünenthal exposé, despite the company never having issued reparations, or even an apology, to victims in Germany, von Glasow, himself disabled because of Thalidomide, chooses to focus on the lives of 12 people, all middle-aged now, who were born disabled because of Grünenthal’s negligence. He’s hoping to publish a calendar featuring nude photos of Thalidomide victims, partly to publicize their fight for reparations, partly to challenge our rigidly traditional notions of beauty.
Von Glasow makes the right choice to not merely make yet another corporate-crimes doc—the actions of Grünenthal clearly say enough—but to focus on the people, some British, some German, some men, some women, none with exactly the same deformity, who’ve learned to deal with life when they’ve been physically compromised since before birth. Suffering from an obstacle in life that seems almost predestined could result in life-long depression, but it’s inspiring how well von Glasow’s subjects have accepted their fate—and how normal their lives are in spite of it. Only one victim, a middle-aged solicitor, who has lost both his arms and legs, says that he’s contemplated suicide. A 45-year-old British actor, Mat Fraser, who’s one of the first to agree to von Glasow’s nude photo shoot, actually says that knowing who and what were responsible for his condition makes it easier to accept. “We’ve got it lucky,” he says. “We never have to go ‘Why me, God? Why me?’ Which must be a terrible dilemma. I’ve often thought about disabled people who have no reason [for their disability]. Sometimes it must fuck with their head a bit.”
Some of the subjects’ stories are deeply sad, such as that of a woman who, along with her mother, was prevented from attending church by her minister because he felt her disability was “God’s judgment.” Another talks about how her father would make her cover herself completely with a poncho when introduced to his business colleagues, so they wouldn’t notice her missing arms. And yet she’s now working as a receptionist, even if it means having to answer phones with her feet. That’s the thing about von Glasow’s subjects. None of them cry out for sympathy, for any special attention. They’ve found ways to “be normal.” Fraser even persuades von Glasow not to turn the sale of their calendar into a charity publishing event, because he doesn’t want his life to be marketed as a sympathetic, inspirational narrative—and because he wants the proceeds for himself, like any struggling actor would.
Unfortunately, at times it seems that von Glasow falls into the trap of overly narrativizing his subjects’ lives himself. He shoehorns a bit too forcefully a plot structure, that of recruiting these people for his photo shoot, into his film. At other times, it doesn’t feel like the shoot is in fact an independent event that he’s documenting, so much as a pseudo-event invented to give his film an overarching story. There are a couple other moments that feel particularly contrived. Von Glasow chooses to open with a conversation with his young son, as they stroll through a city park, about how he would feel if his father posed nude. The conversation is broken up into so many different camera angles, that you can’t help but wonder if von Glasow is having his son do retakes. It would be fine, if it were just a talking-head setup like much of the rest of the film, but since this is given a veneer of naturalism it seems particularly staged rather than documented. Even more contrived is his version of Michael Moore confronting Charlton Heston with a photo of a gunned-down child in 0Bowling for Columbine, when he places a giant photo of himself stark naked in front of the Grünenthal headquarters.
Despite his baring it all, it’s sad also that von Glasow chooses to reveal so little of his own personal history in his film. He elicits such candid discussions from his subjects, but he himself divulges little about how his parents treated his disability, how it’s affected his relationship with women, how difficult it must have been pursuing a career as a film director for the past 20 years, etc. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t really accepted himself or his disability, unlike most of his subjects who do seem to have. But the greatest challenge—and threat—of being a documentarian is when you have to turn the camera inward, and von Glasow at least has enough self-awareness to recognize this when he says, “If I was cool about being disabled, I wouldn’t be making this film.”