Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

The Nasty Girl (1990)

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.

Movie Information

Genre: Drama, Holocaust, History
Director: Michael Verhoeven
Actors: Lena Stolze, Hans-Reinhard Müller, Monika Baumgartner
Year: 1990
Original Review: November 1994


Sight & Sounds Top Five Film Books

Although this is on a BFI site that is no longer actively maintained, it’s still a good introduction to a handful key books in cinema history as chosen by a poll of 51 critics and writers. The top five works were David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer, Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, François Truffaut’s Hitchcock, and André Bazin’s What is Cinema? Each book gets a brief overview and a sample of the writing. As of the time I’m writing this, you still have access to Nick Drake’s introductory essay, and the full annotated list of top 5 choices for each of the critics and writers polled—an education in itself!

Man Stuck in Airport Makes Awesome Music Video With iPhone

The title says it all. Richard Dunn, you the man!

16 Best Places to Watch Free Movies Online

Another site that doesn’t need much explaining. Life really is too short. I was sold the moment I saw that Internet Movie Archive had George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

Films Worth Talking About:

le Bal du gouverneur (The Governor’s Ball), Stan the Flasher, The Krays, Atame (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down), An Angel at my Table, The Killer, Ghost, GoodFellas, Milou en mai (May Fools), An Officer and a Gentleman, The Nasty Girl, la femme Nikita, Pretty Woman, Cyrano de Bergerac, Mountains of the Moon, Wild at Heart, Total Recall, Dick Tracy, Metropolitan, Postcards From the Edge, La Gloire de mon père (My Father’s Glory), le Château de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle), Dances With Wolves, Edward Scissorhands, Home Alone, Godfather Part III, Green Card, Blue Steel, Celia, Strapless, The Two Jakes, Europa Europa, The Unbelievable Truth, The Comfort of Strangers, Come See the Paradise

The Bigger Picture

Films: The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), Europa (Zentropa) (1991), Wit (2001)


Books: Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners; Timothy D. Synder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin & Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

The Word on the Street

German playwright Bertolt Brecht felt that theatre should teach the audience certain moral lessons, and to this end he developed a mode of presentation frequently described as “theatre of alienation”–a type of production in which the audience is never allowed to fully identify with the characters and their situations and is instead asked to critically observe the material and draw conclusions from it. For the most part, this is a style that works best on the stage–but director Michael Verhoeven uses it as a springboard for THE NASTY GIRL. And the result is one of the few instances in which these Brechtian concepts come successfully to the screen.”


Brecht wanted Epic Theatre to use history and let audiences apply it to the present. This type of theatre makes you aware that you are watching something staged, so that you analyze the situation rather then feeling the same emotions of the characters. Verhoeven does this very nicely using a few alienation effects (also know as vefremdungs effekt). One scene taking the walls down of Sonja’s living room and having it float through town while people anonymously call and threaten her family. Here the idea of Foucault’s panoptican (an instrument that can see everything) comes into play as well. Sonya has no anonymity from the public, which is made up of the church, the government, the media, and the fifth establishment (the elder generation that serve as a link from the past to the present), yet she cannot identify any of them specifically. Later on again in a different sequence, Verhoeven brings back the walls. It is here that Sonja learns some names she can use to defend herself, and the walls of defense are back. Bringing back the walls also helps alarm the audience, just in case they were becoming too comfortable without them.”


On a trip to Salzburg, Austria just a few years back, I noticed a beautiful monument to the Waffen SS (the group that manned the death squads and enacted the “final solution”) prominently displayed in the town’s cemetery! Yes, this was the SAME cemetery in which the Von Trapp family hid in the movie The Sound of Music! If you are there some day, see it for yourself. It would be nice if someone confronted the apparently more open acceptance of their Nazi past here as well.”


The film contains one of the most astonishing performances by an actress I have ever seen. Lena Stolze plays the character Sonja from the age of 16 through to adulthood. How did she do it? She was already far from her teens when she played the cutest 16 year-old with pigtails and the innocent eyes of a child. Her whimsy and her manner made her perfect for this difficult part, and her success made the film work.”