“Such a nasty woman…”—Donald Trump, interrupting Hillary Clinton during their final presidential debate
I must’ve been four or five when I viewed a trailer on a rented VHS tape that deeply unsettled me. It began and ended with a black-and-white shot of a woman resembling Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” complete with braids, whistling into the lens. In between those bookends were images of bricks being tossed through windows, fists being thrown and sticks of dynamite materializing on a bed. I wrote this off over the last few decades as some sort of bizarre nightmare or hallucination, until I randomly stumbled upon the trailer on YouTube last month.
At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was the woman who inspired countless nightmares of menacing girls chasing me through a field, whistling directly into my face. What I didn’t remember was that this footage was accompanied by Maurice Chevalier singing, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” and that the overall tone of the trailer was strangely comedic. Turns out that the ad was for Michael Verhoeven’s 1990 German film, “The Nasty Girl,” about Sonja (Lena Stolze), a celebrated student who uncovers secrets from her town’s past, only to have her neighbors revolt against her truth-telling. The trailer was deliberately vague about the precise nature of these secrets, which involve her town’s buried history of Nazi collaboration. Verhoeven’s film earned great acclaim upon its release, earning the Audience Award for Best Film and Silver Bear for Best Director at Berlinale as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (losing to Xavier Koller’s “Journey of Hope” about illegal Turkish immigrants in Switzerland). Though the movie still has yet to acquire a decent DVD or Blu-ray release in the states, I was able to track it down on Amazon Prime, and not only is it a masterpiece, it is flat-out chilling in its timeliness.
In the first of three opening quotes, writer/director Verhoeven (whose father was indeed a filmmaker named Paul, though not the Dutch auteur behind “Starship Troopers”) informs us that this movie is “based on the experiences of Anja Rosmus in Passau” and that “the story is applicable to all German towns.” The characters and events may be largely fictitious (Sonja’s village is given the made-up name “Pfilzing”), yet there are many plot elements taken from real life. At age 16, Rosmus participated in a nationwide essay contest where she investigated the prewar history of her hometown. The stories of heroism and defiance shared by townspeople contrasted sharply with her research through local archives, where she found that many prominent citizens had been active in the Nazi Party prior to WWII, and aided in sending an estimated 400 Jews from Passau to concentration camps. By digging through newspaper clippings, Rosmus discovered that the editor of a local Catholic newspaper, lionized by citizens for his reputation as a resistance fighter, wrote editorials praising Hitler. As a result of her galvanizing discoveries, the woman was harassed relentlessly by members of the public. Her husband, who also happened to be her former high school teacher, fled from town as she was berated with threatening phone calls and attacked by neo-Nazis. Eventually, she moved her family to the United States, settling in the Washington D.C. area.
Perhaps that’s why the image of Sonja whistling serves as a recurring motif—she is an undeniably courageous whistleblower. Countless obstacles are placed in her path, but nevertheless, she persists. For the second pre-title quote, we hear Sonja recite a poem about the fables countries like to tell about themselves: “To us is told in tales of old / Many wondrous things / Of heroes and their valor / Of great deeds and labors…” Then as the opening credits begin, we see men straining to remove a message scrawled onto a public wall that reads, “Where were you from ’39 to 45? Where are you now?” The need to erase history is, of course, one of the defining traits of the Trump Administration, which has gone to such jaw-dropping lengths to discredit our own eyes and ears that it genuinely seems to reside in a parallel reality governed by alternative facts, where the words “would be” are code for “wouldn’t be.” No wonder that, according to a recent poll, 43% of Republicans support granting Trump the power to shut down the media, thus snuffing out any last shred of American democracy. When kindly Fräulein Juckenack presents Sonja with her new essay topic, “My Hometown During the Third Reich,” the girl vows to detail how her community resisted the Nazis. “Just write about the positive things,” instructs her mom. Yet once Sonja stops taking her interview subjects at their word and decides to go searching for the facts on her own, she is swiftly branded an enemy of the people.
[trailer for “The Nasty Girl” begins at the 2:46 mark]
It’s rather unfortunate that “The Nasty Girl” was marketed as some sort of laugh riot in the U.S., and as seen in the trailer, Richard Corliss did indeed hail it as “a delightful comedy.” Roger Ebert was less enthusiastic about the picture, objecting to Verhoeven’s screwball approach to various sequences, yet I believe the elements of humor in no way undermine the seriousness of the subject matter. There are touches of madcap energy in the film’s breakneck pace, with a running time clocking in just over 90 minutes, and playful slapstick, most of which occurs during the first half-hour. Sonja narrates her story in the style of a documentary, and characters address the camera as if they were being interviewed (boom mics are visible on occasion). The passages chronicling Sonja’s early years are shot in black-and-white, and there is a certain manic charm to scenes of the all-too tight-knit family interrupting each other at work—since their house is situated right next to the school where the parents teach. The Catholic Church’s incompetence in dealing with sex is skewered when Sonja’s pregnant mother is ordered to stop teaching religion, for fear that her “condition” would be a distraction to students. It’s not long before she proves to be even more distracting in her backyard, as boys training to be priests peer out their classroom window at her cleavage (meanwhile, the all girls’ school next door has its windows frosted).
Stolze, who was about 33 during filming, is simply astonishing in how she manages to convincingly play Sonja from a 12-year-old schoolgirl to a fully grown adult (in one dream sequence, she even appears as an owl-eyed grandmother chopping wood). What’s most impressive is how she suggests her character’s growing maturity through her physicality, which starts as loose and gawky before becoming fiercely confident. Axel de Roche’s photography and Ute Truthmann’s costumes assist in making the illusion nearly seamless, aside from a few close-ups, such as the aforementioned shot of her whistling—which may have been what weirded me out all those years ago (she looks like a kid, but not quite). That shot occurs as Sonja takes in her view from the Eiffel Tower, while on a vacation to France she earned after winning her initial essay contest. The topic was “Freedom in Europe,” and the paper she writes under the advisement of a misleading archivist is resoundingly applauded in Pfilzing. Only when she’s in France does Sonja realize just how little she knows about her own country. This trip also marks the beginning of her sexual awakening, as she casts off the repression of her upbringing. Not long before, she was in a class taught by her future husband, Martin (Robert Giggenbach), who can’t get through a lesson on static electricity (“When two bodies rub against one another, a certain resistance must be overcome”) without eliciting a cacophony of giggles from his students. Struck by the nude female statues on display in France, Sonja returns home as the film snaps abruptly to color. She plants a passionate kiss on Martin, who is taken aback—this isn’t the same innocent child he fell for (and idealized) two years prior. In a fleeting yet indelible shot late in the film, Sonja doffs her clothes for a swim, illustrating that—unlike the majority of Pfilzing—she has nothing to hide.
Verhoeven previously directed Stolze in 1982’s “The White Rose,” a fact-based thriller about Munich University students who revolted against Germany’s Nazi government. For all of its amusing flourishes, “The Nasty Girl” is truly an absurdist drama at heart, as the ratcheting tension gradually causes the laughter to dissipate. It was a stroke of genius to have photographs used as back projection in various scenes to accentuate the theatricality of the town’s myth-making pageantry, whether it be in church or the local archives. This technique is also utilized on Sonja and Martin’s honeymoon cruise, as they savor the orange sunset before the reality of their hopelessly incompatible union sets in. Though she professes to be happily married, Sonja cannot ignore her sense of “social commitment,” much to the bewilderment of her husband. “Why is she choosing to do this?” Martin cries, to which a priest (in a juxtaposed talking head) responds, “The question you should be asking is, ‘Why aren’t more people doing this too?” The danger that befalls her would obviously be a deterrent for most, as Sonja is repeatedly terrorized by masked men who crucify a cat on her front door. (Delightful!) When she and her family listen to words of unbridled rage on her answering machine (one of which is left by Fräulein Juckenack), the walls of the room are removed as the set glides through public streets past faceless bystanders—any of whom could’ve left the messages. It is Juckenack’s husband—a revered professor (Hans-Reinhard Müller)—whom Sonja finds was one of the Führer’s most ardent supporters, and when he attempts to sue her for defamation, she sees a startling vision of herself tied to a stake (a la Joan of Arc) upon entering the courtroom.
Though “The Nasty Girl” is no longer my nightmare fuel, it is guaranteed to give the current presidents in Poland and Ukraine many a sleepless night. This past March, a law was passed in Poland that outlawed any suggestion that “the Polish nation” was “responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich,” despite there being significant evidence to the contrary. Polish-born historian Jan Grabowski estimates that 200,000 Jews died at the hands of their fellow Poles. Numerous books, plays and films were blacklisted as a result of the law, including Paweł Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winner, “Ida,” which had been criticized for its portrayal of crimes committed by Poles while under German occupation. “Any film which does not simplify reality will have problems today [in Poland],” Pawlikowski said when his latest movie, “Cold War,” premiered at Cannes. “Poland is going through a very ideological time with the new right-wing government which is reinterpreting everything based on two very simple criteria — ‘Back then was absolute evil, and now everything is great. We are a noble people, it was the terrible communists [who did those things] and not us, it was the Martians.’ This is not a time for nuance.” The current rise in anti-Semitism was only intensified when Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews may have been responsible for his government’s hacking of the 2016 U.S. election. Under immense pressure from allies, Poland backpedaled on the severity of its law in June, eliminating criminal penalties for violators. However, Ukraine’s equally atrocious Law 2538-1 has remained intact since it was passed in 2015. It criminalizes any words deemed insulting to anti-communist partisans, while protecting groups such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its armed wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which slaughtered about 90,000 Poles. Known collectively as “Decommunization Laws,” the penalty for refusing to comply with Ukraine’s censorship rules is potential media ban and a five-year prison sentence.
In every sense, Sonja in “The Nasty Girl” stands as a hero for our modern era. When she chooses to break the fourth wall during the film’s final act, her eyes pierce through the screen. The town may scramble to make peace by casting away Juckenack as a scapegoat while placing Sonja—or rather, her newly sculpted bust—on a pedestal. Those who fear the woman it was modeled on will take comfort in how it looks nothing like her and has little to say. With the town claiming that they supported the muckraker all along, Sonja is cheered at the unveiling of her bust, but she sees right through this flimsy effort for constructing an unearned happy ending. “You don’t want to honor me!” she exclaims. “You want to shut me up!” Never will she allow herself to be willfully blinded by phony platitudes or brutish intimidation. She’d rather be out of view, up in the tree of her childhood, where gallows once stood. There she can keep watch on all we wish to conceal, while preserving her youthful devotion to truth in all forms. Thank heaven for little girls.
“The Nasty Girl” is available for rental and purchase on Amazon Prime and deserves a Criterion edition stat.