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BMJ. 2007 May 5; 334(7600): 933.
PMCID: PMC1865433
Medicine and the Media

Thalidomide: the true story?

Annette Tuffs, freelance journalist

A legal battle between the German media and the manufacturers of the drug thalidomide over the accuracy of a new television drama has thrust the 50 year old tragedy back into the headlines

One of the worst tragedies in the history of drug therapy began almost 50 years ago, on 1 October 1957, when thalidomide was introduced as a sleeping pill by the firm Grünenthal onto the West German market. The drug, prescribed and sold over the counter as Contergan in West Germany, was launched in almost 50 other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, mostly under licence. It had sedating effects and seemed to be well tolerated and without toxic side effects, even in pregnancy. Two years later the link between the pill and serious malformations in newborn babies was discovered. Worldwide, about 12 000 children with limb deformations were born (no cases occurred in the United States because of a stricter drug safety law, diligently administered by the Food and Drug Administration).

This anniversary should have been accompanied by the broadcasting of the television drama “Eine einzige Tablette” (“Just one pill”) in two 90 minute episodes on the German state television Westdeutscher Rundfunk, which had commissioned the programme from the award winning producer Michael Souvignier and his production firm Zeitsprung. However, legal battles are threatening the launch, and a fierce debate in the German media between Grünenthal, Westdeutscher Rundfunk, and Zeitsprung has recalled the events of the Contergan tragedy 50 years ago.

At the core of the legal dispute are two questions: how accurately should a fictional television drama based on real events report details of the events and the people involved, and, how far can artistic freedom go without hurting personal rights and feelings?

The film is the story of a young lawyer and his wife whose child is born with malformations after the wife took just one Contergan pill. Together with a doctor in Hamburg the lawyer uncovers the cause of the malformations and acts as a representative for the victims in the court case against Grünenthal. In the film as in reality, the drug was withdrawn by the firm after experts' suspicions were raised in Germany and Australia and published in the German press. Despite being found guilty, representatives of Grünenthal were not convicted of negligence, and the case was dropped when the firm established a DM100m compensation fund for the victims. The German government doubled this sum, and the fund now stands at €204m (£140m, $279m). It provides a monthly income of about €500 to about 2500 people in Germany who were severely affected by Contergan and have no other income.

The names of the protagonists in the television drama were invented and their personal details were changed considerably, but the pharmaceutical firm appears in the film as Grünenthal. After Grünenthal read the script, it instigated a court action against the film production company Zeitsprung to alter 15 key scenes. For example, Grünenthal challenged the statement in the script that the drug was not withdrawn until more than a year after the first suspicions were raised, stating that in reality this happened after just 12 days.

“We tried to convince Zeitsprung to alter these scenes. When they did not agree we had to take swift legal action to stop the broadcasting in the interest of our staff,” said Sebastian Wirtz, the chief executive officer of Grünenthal. The firm's press officer, Annette Fusenig, pointed out that Grünenthal acknowledges this part of its history in internal and external communication, for instance on its homepage and in publications, but insists on accurate documentation, even in fictionalised forms.

Zeitsprung insists that the film is based on historical facts. “The film mixes up historical facts with freely invented scenes in crucial points. The spectator will not be able to distinguish between fiction and fact and will therefore get a completely wrong picture of what happened. That we cannot accept,” countered Annette Fusenig.

Rather surprisingly, Grünenthal's claim was supported by one of the firm's former opponents, the lawyer Karl-Hermann Schulte-Hillen, on whom the lawyer in the film was modelled. He alleged that his personal rights were infringed, claiming that real events and personal details were tampered with, and reality and fiction mixed.

On the basis of the 2005 screenplay, the court decision by the Landgericht Hamburg in July 2006 was in favour of both these claims. Zeitsprung was not to release the film unless changes were made in 32 instances. But a higher court in Hamburg, the Oberlandesgericht, decided on 10 April that a version of the original film revised in just one of the 32 instances could be broadcast and that the other 31 should be dismissed. The Landgericht Hamburg will decide on 11 May whether changes should be made in two critical scenes involving Grünenthal. Karl-Herrmann Schulte-Hillen's claims have all been dismissed.

Zeitsprung and Westdeutscher Rundfunk welcomed the court's principal decision on broadcasting. “We are happy that almost all obstacles have been removed by this trend setting decision which allows us in the future to handle recent historical topics in an artistic way,” said WDR-TV director Ulrich Deppendorf.

Mirek Nitsch, legal adviser at Zeitsprung, pointed out that the film had not been altered or recut, as Grünenthal states; revising is a natural process in filmmaking and the final version is never entirely true to the original script. He is hopeful that the final court decision will also be in favour of the film producers since the higher court decision did not favour Grünenthal. Scenes from the film have already been shown at the international film market in Cannes to prepare for its sale later this year after legal obstacles have been removed.

Grünenthal sees its original claims confirmed by the Oberlandesgericht's decision, saying that many key scenes have now been changed. The firm points out that it is still considering an appeal to the German constitutional court and has warned international television companies about purchasing the film. Pending the decision by Germany's highest court, the film can be shown on the basis of 10 April court decision.

How accurately should a fictional TV drama based on real events report details of the events and the people involved? And how far can artistic freedom go without hurting personal rights and feelings?


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