With all its resourcefulness and romp, Michael Verhoeven's "The Nasty Girl" is a spunky German cousin of "His Girl Friday," an energetic, black-comic celebration of a gutsy gal news-gatherer and the high cost of digging for truth. Drawn from the real-life exploits of the historian Anna Rosmus, the movie engrosses us in the minutiae of a small life made grand by persistence and old-fashioned pluck.
Rosmus's alter ego here is historian Sonja Rosenberger (Lena Stolze), a pigtailed Bavarian miss who becomes the most reviled citizen of clannish Pfilzing when she persists in exposing her hometown's real past. Sonja is a born snoop with a passion for burrowing after facts that rivals a squirrel's frenzied search for long-forgotten acorns.
Sonja, who narrates the documentary-style portions of this eclectically composed film, tells us that the trouble began even before she was out of the womb when her mother, a Catholic-school teacher, was asked, "Do you really want to keep teaching in your condition?" And in this way the film's theme of repression is first touched upon. As with corruption, it says, the stifling of mind and body is learned early in German schools.
But as her chronology shows us, Sonja had a mind of her own as a precocious toddler. Unexpectedly, she turns an alfresco buffet into a domestic tragedy when she dumps the main course -- a large bass -- back into the Pfilz River. "Mother always told us God's creations were sacred," says the heroine, imperious in her pigtails and childish self-importance. But she never outgrows the capriciousness and remains to the end as stubborn as a burr.
Sonja, a model student, becomes a celebrity when she wins an essay contest about "Freedom in Europe." As a celebrated Pfilzinger, she is invited to compete in another contest. But this time she chooses the unpopular topic "My Hometown in the Third Reich" -- which according to lore didn't collaborate with the Nazis. However, the local archives produce contradictory evidence and she soon finds herself denied access to the incendiary files and misses the contest deadline as a result.
Years later, after her marriage to her former teacher Martin (Robert Giggenbach Dr.), and the birth of their two daughters, she enrolls in the university to study the history ofPfilzing. Encountering further resistance, Sonja sues the city to gain access to the files, and her notoriety brings threats against her and her family. Finally her house is bombed by neo-Nazi thugs. Martin, who has been supportive, leaves her and returns to Munich, but Sonja stays and writes a book.
Stolze, who also played a conscientious student in Verhoeven's 1981 film about anti-fascists, "The White Rose," is lithe and spirited. Even as an adult, her Sonja remains devastatingly precocious, like some overgrown Heidi. As conceived by the actress and her writer-director, Sonja is a junior Valkyrie, an intolerable splinter in the seat of Pfilzing. But such is the exasperating stuff heroines are made of.
Verhoeven, no relation to "RoboCop's" Paul, has been engaged in social criticism most of his life. And while his movies are prized by film aficionados, there is nothing obscure about "The Nasty Girl." This is a comedy as clear as aqua vitae, affording a compelling look at German dis-remembrance. Using both tried and untested techniques, Verhoeven derives a gaudy quilt, a history of pieces and patches -- and one clear-eyed young woman's resilience. Though the film was shot in Anna Rosmus's hometown of Passau, Verhoeven calls Sonja's town Pfilzing, from the German verb filzen, which means to be stingy or retentive. The term "Pfilzing Syndrome" has already come to stand for feigned ignorance of the Nazi era. "Where were you from 1939 to 1945? Where are you now?" questions the graffito in the opening scene. With the wrath of the wronged, a workman wipes away the scrawl. And we come away more than a little scared.
The Nasty Girl, at area theaters, is in German with English subtitles and is rated PG-13.