Given she is not a household name here, the film would be of marginal interest if not for the fact Westheimer is an interesting enigma. Growing up Jewish near Frankfurt in the 1930s, her parents took the wrenching decision to send their 10-year-old daughter on a Kinder Transport train to Switzerland, where she lived in an orphanage. Her parents died in the death camps.
Karola Siegel, as she was then known, went to Israel just after the war, dumping the German-sounding first name for her middle name, Ruth. After studying at the Sorbonne, she emigrated to America in 1956 with her second husband. She worked for a dollar an hour while she learnt English. She qualified as a sex therapist, married a third time and began her rise to stardom from the mid-1980s, with a radio program.
Her appearance is part of her charm. At 140 centimetres she is a pocket rocket of energy, even at 90, but there is a kernel of sorrow she keeps well hidden. Even her daughter says she has only seen her cry once. Instead, she has a relentless drive to leave her mark on the world – a legacy of having survived the Holocaust.
The film is pedestrian, even if she is not. Westheimer has great reserves of humour and strength, which explains some of her success. She is unembarrassed by any question, in a country that blushes at the mention of the word “toilet”. She is forthright and outspoken, yet she refuses to call herself a feminist or talk politics, even when her grandchildren point out her commitment to feminist ideals and progressive causes.
The director never quite gets her to sit still and talk seriously about herself. She is good at deflecting those who want to pry and that’s a problem for the film. If we’re going to go 100 minutes with this remarkable old lady, a little depth is pretty much required. It turns out you can ask Dr Ruth about anything – except perhaps herself.