'The Nasty Girl': When history is written by the losers
Buried on Paramount +, this long-unavailable Miramax acquisition from 1990 speaks uncannily to the simmering evils of the present day.
The first titles we see in The Nasty Girl are attributed to its director, Michael Verhoeven: “This film is based on the experiences of Anja Rosmus in Passau. The story is applicable to all German towns. All characters and events are fictitious.” The first and last of those lines are the sort of boilerplate disclaimer you expect from fiction films inspired by real events. The second is the point of the film, stated with audacious candor. It’s like a thesis sandwich.
I had not seen The Nasty Girl since its American release in the early ‘90s, when it was a big enough deal to close the New York Film Festival, score an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and have the backing of Miramax Films, which had made hits out of Cinema Paradiso and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. Despite the company’s typically cynical efforts to market it—mainly through artwork that made it look like the erotic romp it most certainly was not—the film tanked on middling reviews from prominent critics like Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert, and has been increasingly difficult to find over the years. It left a lasting impression on me, but I must confess that was mostly due to the film’s stylistic touches, like having characters break the fourth wall and shooting scenes in front of photographic backdrops. File under: Bold.
One night, I was determined to scale the “mountain of entertainment” that is Paramount +, and find some movie on the service that I wouldn’t have expected, because surely this bottom-tier streamer would have something to offer beyond a new SpongeBob SquarePants movie and a Mark Wahlberg vehicle deemed unfit for theaters. And there in the comedy section, past the definitive selection of Comedy Central Roasts, was The Nasty Girl, sparkling like one of those out-of-print rarities that used to turn up occasionally in a department store cut-out bin. It turns out that Paramount + hosts several masterpieces of the They Don’t Know What They Have variety, including Takeshi Kitano’s best film, Sonatine (also Miramax), and François Truffaut’s hard-to-find Small Change, which can only be discovered under its international title, Pocket Money. (This carelessness is what happens when movies become “content.”)
This time, from that opening title, “The story is applicable to all German towns,” The Nasty Girl immediately snapped into place for me as a film much more significant than its formal audacity alone— and one that speaks to the present like a bullhorn. Because the story is surely applicable to American towns, too, especially at a time when far-right extremism infiltrates the mainstream, and abhorrent beliefs, policies, and actions are no longer understood as beyond the pale. The fascism and anti-semitism that once took hold of Pfilzing, the film’s picturesque Bavarian town, surely did not evaporate the moment the Nazis were defeated, as if the country had been under a form of hypnosis that lifted. So where did it go? What new forms did it take? How did the local leaders that supported it get so easily folded back into polite society?
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The Nasty Girl addresses those questions both seriously and irreverently, with its heroine at once a mischievous, trouble-making scamp and an uncompromising truth-teller who will risk alienating every single person in her life to get to the bottom of the story. The film is based on the true story of Anna Rosmus, who at 16 won a national essay contest for a piece about her hometown during the Third Reich. She brushed up against truths that had been hidden for decades, and then she kept on researching and writing for years afterwards, attracting fierce resistance (and litigation) from townspeople who did not want their shameful past as Nazi collaborators or enablers to come to light. Some of the most prominent leaders and families had taken an active role in helping the Nazis send hundreds of Jews to concentration camps, and their stature after the war had not changed in the least.
Recognizing that her fight will be a lonely one, Verhoeven (no relation to Paul, incidentally) gives his fictionalized nasty girl, Sonja (Lena Stolze), a friend and co-conspirator in the audience itself, whom she addresses straight to the camera with a kind of indignant cheeriness, like, “Can you believe this shit?” In a none-too-subtle sign of things to come, Verhoeven opens with a piece of graffiti getting scrubbed away, with a message not yet faint enough to miss: “Where were you from ’39 to ’45? Where are you now?” But we start with Sonja as a bright, optimistic teenager, too young to know the town of Pfilzing as anything other than the quaint, friendly riverside berg where she’s lived happily all her life. She’s the type of kid who’s more liked by teachers than peers, eagerly raising her hand at every question and vigorously extending her studies outside school.
One of her favorite teachers is Miss Juckenack (Barbara Gallauner), who correctly suspects that Sonja will be excited to participate in a national essay contest and isn’t concerned about her writing what will surely be a paean to her hometown. Sonja wins the contest, which takes her on a trip to Paris, but she isn’t fully satisfied with her research, so when she has the opportunity to write a second essay on “how the town resisted the Nazis, especially the church,” she hits the archives again. This time, she encounters troubling headlines from the town newspaper, which happens to have been run by Miss Juckenack’s husband (Hans-Reinhard Müller), who is still in a position of great power. From there, her ongoing history project meets increasingly heavy-handed forms of resistance, from blocked files in the archives to threats of violence.
Verhoeven was a professional shit-stirrer long before The Nasty Girl. His 1970 Vietnam War film o.k. was so controversial that the Berlin Film Festival shut down its entire competition, because they were so at odds over what George Stevens, the head of the jury, perceived as the film’s anti-American sentiment. Though shot with German actors in a Bavarian forest, o.k. was about the same incident that later inspired Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War—the abduction and gang rape of a Vietnamese girl by U.S. unit, and the treatment of a soldier who tried to report the crime to his superior. The film is difficult to see now—I have only read about it—but the parallels between it and The Nasty Girl are apparent: Both are about conscientious whistleblowers who are intimidated and attacked for doing the right thing.
They’re also about a much deeper and pernicious issue. We can agree that Nazis are a terrible evil. But when it comes to holding people with power to account, few authorities have the stomach for it. Institutions protect the powerful and vice versa, and the obstacles to achieve real justice and change are simultaneously hidden and imposing. Sonja’s efforts to expose the town’s past get reframed by her community as unpatriotic and ungenerous, a refusal to allow the citizens of Pfilzing to turn the page on his painful chapter in its history. Surely this sounds familiar to Americans living in the year 2021, right? Surely we should be concerned that the Mr. Jackenacks of the world will suffer no consequences for past behavior, no? Otherwise, what’s to stop this from happening again?
Fortunately, Verhoeven doesn’t pose such rhetorical questions as artlessly as I just did above, though the politics of The Nasty Girl are full of righteous fury. Lena Stolze plays Sonja as a happy warrior, palpably disappointed by the town she loves, but willing to serve as gadfly through court appearances, contentious town hall meetings, and even bombs tossed into her living room. It puts a strain on her marriage—to a substitute teacher she’d met on the sly in high school—and costs her time with her children, too, but she won’t be stopped, even when the mission becomes so quixotic that only her grandmother is left to cheer her on.
The formal riskiness of The Nasty Girl has the cumulative effect of sharpening its focus, even though the techniques would seem to be disorienting. Verhoeven allowing Sonja to speak to us directly has the cut-to-the-chase quality of a tight piece of new journalism, and the projected backdrops interspersed throughout the film make sure our eyes are drawn to what he wants us to see. All a two-dimensional background shot of the archives needs to do is cue the audience in on their enormity; it’s more important to know what Sonja is working on, and how Stolze is playing her. As the timeline collapses between Sonja the teenager and Sonja the citizen-journalist, Verhoeven observes that they’re the same person: The girl who loved the town of Pfilzing more than anyone and the young woman who still does, however much it disappoints her. That’s patriotism.
The Nasty Girl is currently streaming on Paramount+. It can be rented or bought in standard definition on Amazon.
you've convinced me I really want to see this, but... Paramount+?
Interesting, it's not available on the seemingly useless Paramount+ Canada ($5.99 CAD/m for Survivor). I'm curious how the presentation looks, JustWatch says it is HD, I'd be surprised if it is anything beyond an upscaled DVD?