A saviour’s a nuisance to live with at home
—Joan Baez, “Winds of the Old Days”
The truth is out there….but what is it worth? What exactly would you be willing to sacrifice for it? Your career? Your family? Your friends? Your life? Some who live here in the Kootenays have already made such sacrifices, or have friends, relations, or family who have chosen that difficult road. For the first hour or so, Michael Verhoeven’s film The Nasty Girl (1989, in German with English subtitles) doesn’t seem a likely candidate for a profound treatise on the nature of martyrdom. Wrong. By the film’s end, the questions with which I began this review fall upon the main character’s shoulders with a weight that would have crushed Atlas. A price is paid. The viewer is left to decide upon the value of what has been purchased.
Based on a true story, The Nasty Girl begin as an ironic, irreverent send-up of modem-day, provincial German society. The style is unique: first-person narration by the heroine, with a combination of on-location shooting, interviews, and projected backdrops combining to create a weirdly theatrical dramatic space. Set in the wonderfully-named, mythical Bavarian town of Pflizing (on the Pfliz River!), we are at first treated to the story of our heroine’s eccentric childhood. Displaced persons after the War, Sonya Rosenberger’s parents raise their three children in a small rectory in the back of the local church—of which Sonya’s benevolent Uncle Franz is the presiding bishop.
The young Sonya is a spirited girl. She tosses a fish dinner into the river with the explanation that fish would rather swim. She attends Saint Anna’s Convent School, ogles the boys in the school across the street, works hard, and ruthlessly torments substitute teachers. Living as she does under Uncle Franz’s wing, she’s also the teachers’ pet. Where other parents have to pay the school to have answers to tests sneaked to their daughters, the nuns of Saint Anna’s go out of their way to make sure Sonya will be a stranger to failure. And when a nation-wide essay contest is announced (“Greece as the Cradle of Democracy”), everyone knows that “she’ll write the right thing.”
She does. She wins. First prize is a trip to Paris. In the meantime, she’s also fallen madly in love with the young student teacher who’s just arrived at the school. Domestic bliss and an innocuous teaching career seem just around the comer.
Then along comes Essay Competition Number Two. Choice of two topics.
Good choice #1: “The Concept of Europe”
Baaaaaaad Choice #2: “My Hometown During the 3rd Reich”
What’s to worry? Sonya’s grown up with all the stories about how the people of her hometown, and the clergy in particular, heroically resisted their Nazi oppressors. Father Shulte, executed by the Germans for preaching against the racial laws, has become the Pflizigian Everyman—the beacon in whose reflected light each citizen of Pflizig shines resplendently.
It’s a lie, of course.
Renaud Sechan said it well in his bitter hymn to French hypocrisy, “L’Hexagone”:
“y’avait pas beaucoup d’Jean Moulin”
There weren’t a lot of heroic resistance fighters. Father Shulte died alone. Most people were just scared and confused and trying to get on with their lives. Easy to turn a blind eye. A concentration camp just outside the town?—No, it was just a work camp.
From cooperation to collaboration. Many were venal enough to look for profit in the midst of horror. The SS never had too hard a time finding citizens willing to take over expropriated Jewish homes & property. And the exalted founder in the same pits as the humble. French President Francois Mitterand has recently been trying to explain why as late as 1984 he was still having supper with the man most responsible for the round-up of Jews in occupied France.
Terrified that the sounds of skeletons rattling in closets will become deafening, the past is rewritten by the victors & the vanquished. The unthinkable alternative would be a conversation that went something like this:
Young Bavarian Boy: “Gee, dad, mom, what did you do in the War?”
Mom & Dad: “Well, son, we cooperated wholeheartedly with the Nazis!”
Young Bavarian Boy: “Gosh! Don’t you feel guilty?”
Mom & Dad: “Not a bit, son! We’re downright proud of how well we ignored all those unpleasant things we couldn’t do anything about anyhow. If you’re really lucky, maybe someday you ’ll have a chance to do absolutely nothing in a moment of crisis!”
So you bury the past. Then along comes a schoolgirl whose search for the truth—at first naively embracing the myths; later sacrificing her marriage and any semblance of a normal life to lay the myths bare—not only disturbs the bones but orchestrates them into a symphony of decrial. Files are unearthed. A book is published. Masks are ripped away. On the bright side, Sonya’s grandmother becomes an endearing symbol of the kind of generous spirit no dictatorship can completely suppress.
The truth sort of triumphs.
I believe it’s the “sort of” that makes The Nasty Girl a great film, rather than just a good one. By the last scene, with Sonya and her children seeking refuge in the Tree of Justice, the viewer is left to decide whether the truth was worth the price. Some very ugly things have happened. Is a revised history of Pfilzig and some of its citizens worth a family’s life in tatters? How permanent is the victory? In Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, another story about an obsessive hunt for the truth, the villains ultimately sink back into the woodwork & anonymity. Is a single loving family not a greater good than any heap of files from the past? At one point, Sonya says, “I was happily married, my children gave me great joy, but I sometimes felt I had failed.” I think she may have been mistaken.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“You have to know where things come from to know where they’re going.” –Sonja
“Where were you from 1939-1945? Where are you now?” –graffiti on a wall in Sonja’s home town
The Nasty Girl is a small wonder. A rare example of how a serious issue can be addressed with wit, style, and grace. A scalpel rather than a hammer. Director Michael Verhoeven uses a faux-documentary approach & rear projection for humorous distancing and ironic exaggeration. He never lets you forget that you’re watching a cinematic construct, yet he moves so deftly that the film literally dances. Not something you’d expect when the topics are lies, betrayal, collaboration, and reprisal. Lead actress Lena Stolze effortlessly carries the film on her young shoulders. Her Catholic-schoolgirl-gone-rogue persona makes her ideally subversive. The stage is set early when she deliberately knocks over her new baby brother’s stroller, and later convinces him to do the same to his new baby sister. One of the most important lessons she learns in school is that student evaluations are intimately linked to parental donations—an early lesson in corruption. In a perfect example of dramatic irony, the audience knows exactly how things are going to go when Sonja naively announces to the mayor and a local priest that she’s looking forward to writing her second prize-winning essay on how her home town and Church kept their integrity and resisted the Nazis.