The term “disability porn” — often used to disparage films that aggressively tug the heartstrings by displaying severe handicaps and disfigurement — is turned entirely on its head by the wonderful German docu “Nobody’s Perfect.” Tracing one man’s attempt to organize a nude photo shoot of 12 prenatal victims of the toxic drug Thalidomide (including himself), the film is alternately hilarious, insightful and sad, and entirely allergic to sentimentality or easy platitudes. Inherent squeamishness about the subject matter may limit commercial prospects for the Lorber Films pickup, though this docu is about as far from a downer as can be.
Von Glasow opens the film with the camera on himself and his young son, discussing why he never joins him when the two go swimming. As one of the thousands born with serious disfigurements in the early ’60s due to the German morning-sickness drug Thalidomide, von Glasow has fully functional hands, yet his arms are approximately three inches long. Operating under the notion that “the more time people spend with me, the less they notice my short arms,” the director puts himself and 11 other sufferers in close focus — in casual conversation for the film, and in the altogether for a public art project and photography book. Over the course of the film, his theory is proven correct.
Participants are allowed to tell their personal stories (often over beer in cafes or while strolling through town) as the film builds unhurriedly to the final photo shoot. They range in personalities from a bubbly Scottish politician to a grizzled, taciturn gardener, and the severity of their disabilities varies accordingly. Some simply have shortened or slightly deformed arms or legs, some are missing thumbs, and one astrophysicist essentially has no limbs at all.
Providing a hefty dose of the film’s considerable humor is puckish British actor Mat Fraser, who’s seen grilling the director about the temperature in the room during the photo shoot (he’s very serious about presenting his considerable manhood in its best possible shape) and genially objecting to the notion that proceeds from the book should go to “a good cause,” instead of to the participants themselves. “Why does everything have to be such a big orgy of compassion?” he asks, providing what could well serve as the film’s tagline.
Though often funny, the film never becomes flippant. Von Glasow asks serious questions of the participants — discussions about sex, bathroom habits and thoughts of suicide are tackled with a striking, and presumably intentional, lack of delicacy — and makes no bones about his own unceasing anger over his condition. His attempts to contact the president of Grunenthal, the company that produced the drug and which has, according to the film, yet to officially apologize, carry obvious strains of “Roger and Me.”
Yet the director’s political agitation is mostly a side note to the film’s quiet moments of insight, both philosophical and practical. He also manages to present his subjects as attractively as possible without ever turning away from their physical abnormalities. When a strikingly pretty blonde with Nico-style bangs casually lights a cigarette, the shot is so matter-of-factly framed that the viewer immediately registers her elegance and temporarily forgets she has no arms.
The photos are tasteful and occasionally very funny — most hilarious is the portrait of von Glasow himself, which, when coupled with the film’s powerful final image, becomes unexpectedly touching as well.
Shot mostly on 35mm, the film nevertheless has a fly-on-the-wall homemovie quality that suits the intimacy of its subjects. Tech contributions are solid and unobtrusive.