When Jan Schulte-Hillen was born in Germany in 1961 with deformed, extremely short arms, he was met with horror. His mom’s doctor, in a voice devoid of emotion, advised her to have another child and get rid of him.
No one in that delivery room knew that the newborn, with his big, bright eyes, was one of thousands of babies being born all over the world with severe deformities as a result of the worst drug disaster in history. To ease her morning sickness, his mom had taken thalidomide.
Baby Schulte-Hillen was one of the lucky ones whose parents loved him fiercely from the get-go. Others were given up for adoption, sent to mental institutions, or, according to thalidomide researcher Martin Johnson, killed at the hands of the very doctors who delivered them.
Schulte-Hillen shares his story in filmmaker John Zaritsky’s new documentary, No Limits: The Thalidomide Saga, the final film in his trilogy about the world’s “thalidomiders”. Their experiences are especially heartbreaking and enraging, given that signs of the drug’s effects were early and obvious; nine months after the first deformed baby was born, thalidomide was brought to market in Germany. Doctors in almost 50 countries went on to prescribe the pill to pregnant women for years, despite baby after baby being born with stunted, misshapen arms and legs or limbless altogether.
But the tale gets much darker and more disturbing than that.
No Limits, which has its world premiere at the 15th annual DOXA Documentary Film Festival, sheds shocking light on Grünenthal (formerly Chemie Grünenthal), the German pharmaceutical company behind the drug. Thalidomide, in fact, had its origins in Nazi Germany.
According to the film, the drug’s inventor, Heinrich Mückter, was a doctor whose experiments were performed on prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Chemist Otto Ambros, after spending four years in prison for Auschwitz forced-labour atrocities, became chair of Grünenthal’s board of directors, hired by the company’s then owner, Hermann Wirtz, who was an influential member of the Nazi Party.
A team of Australian lawyers for thalidomide victim Lynette Row discovered the truth behind the drug by unearthing volumes of damning evidence about Grünenthal, documents that had been sealed and placed in archives for 40 years after criminal charges of manslaughter and premeditated bodily harm against its executives were dropped in the early 1970s.
“I had no idea that all this terrible, terrible suffering and damage was all caused by Nazi war criminals who knew the drug was dangerous before they even put it on the market,” Zaritsky says in a phone interview. “I was blown away. And horrified.”
Zaritsky—whose many other films include Do You Really Want to Know?, about families facing Huntington’s disease, and Leave Them Laughing, which followed singer and former Vancouverite Carla Zilbersmith after she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—first featured a group of young adults coping with thalidomide’s signature birth defects (deformed or missing limbs) in his 1989 film, Broken Promises. He revisited those individuals in 1999’s Extraordinary People, which centred on the reintroduction of thalidomide on the Canadian market to treat multiple myeloma and epilepsy.
Aside from documenting thalidomide’s disturbing back story, No Limits features some of the same people from Zaritsky’s previous two films featuring the drug and its effects, completing a kind of Seven Up!–style series on the drug’s disabled victims. With No Limits, he’s hoping that those victims will see some form of justice. Grünenthal is still owned by the Wirtz family, which is allegedly worth billions.
“I really, really hope that Grünenthal will finally, finally do what they should have done 50 years ago and compensate adequately victims outside of Germany, none of whom have received a penny,” Zaritsky claims. “It’s staggering.”
Grünenthal denied Zaritsky’s requests to be interviewed for the film. According to the website for Contergan, the brand name thalidomide was sold under in Germany, the Grünenthal Foundation provides financial assistance for thalidomide victims in acute emergency situations.
The website states: “The Grünenthal Foundation supports individual thalidomide victims by assuming the costs for individual benefits in kind, focusing on mobility and adaptions in the living environment associated with the disability that are not paid for by social security funds (health insurance companies, social services department, etc.).
“Those people interested in this support must be recognized by the Thalidomide Foundation For Disabled People or an institution with similar criteria for recognition.”