Thalidomide film premiere revives compensation fight

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The Independent Online

Germany's pharmaceutical industry spent more than a year trying to ban the film, but last night a moving, controversial and widely acclaimed television drama about the tragedy suffered by thousands of children crippled by the drug thalidomide was finally broadcast to an audience of millions.

The two-part drama – entitled A Single Pill and shown at prime time – amounts to a savage indictment of Grünenthal in Aachen which first manufactured thalidomide, which was known in Germany as Contergan, in 1957.

Lawyers for Grünenthal spent 18 months trying to ban A Single Pill, arguing that it mixed fact with fiction and distorted the truth. However last year, judges at Germany's constitutional court dismissed all objections to the film and ruled that in the interests of free speech it should be shown.

Michael Souvignier, the producer, said yesterday that the court's decision amounted to a triumph for freedom of expression. "I had always believed we would win in the end, but we had no idea that it would take so long," he said.

The film is expected to strengthen the case of thousands of now middle-aged thalidomide victims who have been fighting for decades for substantial increases in the meagre payments they receive as compensation for the disabilities inflicted on them more than 40 years ago.

An estimated 12,000 children worldwide were born without or with severely disfigured limbs as a result of their mothers taking Contergan during pregnancy. The drug was marketed as a sleeping pill without side-effects and was sold without prescription. Grünenthal advertised the drug as being as "harmless as a sugar cube".

A Single Pill, which is set in the late 1950s, tells the story of the lawyer Paul Wegener, whose child is born without arms and a leg after his wife, who is suffering from sleeplessness, innocently takes a single Contergan pill during pregnancy. "My wife takes it too," she is told by her doctor.

The drama, which deals with the battle waged by the lawyer's family against the drug company, includes a disturbing hospital sequence in which doctors try to prevent the newly born child being given to its mother claiming, in language reminiscent of the Nazi era, that it is a "crippled specimen" that can be easily left in a home.

Evidence that has emerged as a result of the controversy stirred by A Single Pill suggests that some Contergan victims were indeed shut away in homes and abandoned by their parents or even dumped on hospital floors after birth.

The star of the film is 13-year-old Denise Marko, a girl born with the disabilities shown in the film as a result of an ailment unconnected with thalidomide. She is shown playing board games with her parents with her single foot.

Grünenthal no longer manufactures thalidomide, but the drug is still used to combat leprosy. In Britain, where 456 children were disabled by thalidomide, the Distillers company manufactured the drug. Thalidomide was eventually banned in 1961.

After a protracted court battle in the 1960s, Grünenthal eventually paid what was regarded as a record sum of 100m marks (¿50m) in compensation to Contergan victims. However, most of the 2,800 Germans handicapped by the drug are obliged to get by on a maximum €545 (£380) a month in compensation payments.

A spokesman for the Contergan vicitms' association, Hiocha, said this week that the organisation's compensation target was €5m which would be enough to help its members cope with old age. "We have never been given adequate or just compensation. Our battle is not yet over," he insisted.

Mr Souvignier said his film company's decision to show A Single Pill to an audience of German Contergan victims was the most rewarding part of the production. "When the film ended one of them got up and said, 'Thank you for making this film – it has stopped us from being forgotten' – that moved me very much," he said.