Starring Ruth Westheimer. In English, German, and Hebrew, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
Ruth Westheimer was the Dan Savage of her time, answering previously unspoken questions about sex with humour and unblinking authority. And as far as we know, the Savage Love dude has still never interrupted an interviewer to ask if the questioner had enough to eat.
The good doctor’s Jewish-mother proclivities, emphasized in this relatively undemanding doc, represent a nod to her parenting success and to the traumatic loss of her own parents in the Holocaust, which she survived by being sent to an austere retreat in Switzerland. Now past 90 and still a miniwhirlwind of nonstop work and travel, Westheimer tells writer-director Ryan White about a childhood in central Germany that was idyllic—until it wasn’t.
After the war, she made it to what would become Israel, and had her first sexual experiences while training as a sniper for the Haganah. She was wounded in 1948, and her brushes with love and war drove her to study psychology, first in Paris, then in New York. The Dr. in front of her name came from Columbia University. She later taught there and at West Point, worked for Planned Parenthood, and was pushed to take her off-the-cuff lecturing style to late-night radio, where she was an unexpected hit—despite breaking so many prudish broadcast conventions, and in a thick Gerrrrrman accent, to boot.
Westheimer went from syndication to PBS specials to becoming a staple on late-night talk shows, and is seen here (archivally) cavorting with everyone from George Burns and Gloria Steinem to Gérard Depardieu. White, who previously made the true-crime series The Keepers, doesn’t press her on some more conservative views about monogamy and marriage, but it’s clear that such personal beliefs mattered little when the diminutive doctor became one of the loudest voices for victims of the burgeoning AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. For her, sex has always been the opposite of death, and she has never shut up about it.