Dr Ruth Westheimer is a popular German-American sex therapist, whose radio and television programs caused a seismic shift in how 1980s America discussed sex, relationships, and sexual health. A talk show stalwart and lecturer, she is now 91 years old and the subject of a new feature documentary directed by Ryan White (The Case Against 8).
From an Australian perspective, a profile of such a definitively American icon makes for something perhaps a little more educational than from the USA’s point of view. While I had heard of Ruth Westheimer, I had never actually had the chance to see her in action. She seems to have existed as both a genuine agent of change in American sexual health, but also a mild figure of fun. A fixture of late night entertainment throughout the 1980s, there seems a mild element of mockery and titilation in presenting a diminutive and middle-aged German woman talking so frankly about sexual activity and issues. For her own part, Dr Ruth seems game – anything to get her sex-positive message across.
She makes for a wonderful interview subject: bold, direct, and good-humoured, she appears to give her director a remarkable degree of access. We see her in her home, we meet her family and former colleagues, and we follow her through multiple countries as she retraces steps in her own life. It is that long, complex life that represents the film’s strongest part. Dr Ruth is not simply German but a German Jew; one who grew up in Frankfurt during the Nazi Party’s rise to power and who witnessed the build-up of antisemitism around her. When she was sent by train to a children’s home in Switzerland, her parents remained behind. She never saw them again. The film tracks Dr Ruth’s entire life to date, from Germany to Switzerland, to Israel and the USA, through marriage and divorce, childbirth, university, and finally to the famous and often controversial role she plays today. It is a life worth recording and discovering, and the perfect subject for a documentary.
It is interesting that, given the amount of physical access Dr Ruth provides to the film, she seems far more reticent to give much in the way of emotional access. Some questions go purposefully unanswered, while others seem to result in evasion. The events of her life are clearly laid out, but how they felt are somewhat unclear. What insight we do gain comes largely from her family: her son and daughter, her granddaughter, and a number of surviving friends from Switzerland, Israel, and America. The film’s subject, however, feels remarkably guarded. We learn the ‘what’, and the ‘when’ and ‘how’, of Dr Ruth Westheimer, but to a large degree we’re left to put together the ‘why’ by ourselves. Ryan White’s documentary is enormously entertaining, information, and occasionally deeply moving – but it sadly stops short at insightful.