FEW WOULD accuse "The Nasty Girl" of being a great movie. But its approach is lightheartedly original and, thanks to a perky performance by Lena Stolze, it has more than its share of passing charms.
This is hardly the kind of description you'd expect for a movie carrying a ponderous message about a country's refusal to face its Nazi past. But that's where the originality lies. Based on a true account by Anna Elizabeth Rosmus, who tried to investigate her Bavarian town's moral past, "The Nasty Girl" departs from all real-life specifics. Writer/director Michael Verhoeven makes the hometown ("Pfilzing") fictional and tells this story with a surreal, ironic sense of humor and in a grab bag of styles, ranging from TV documentary to Federico Fellini comedy.
As Sonya, the "nasty girl" in question, Stolze is unabashedly straightforward, innocent and devilish; the emotions and intelligence cross her face as plainly as Braille. She's a smart kid at a Catholic girl's school in Germany, who is her country's winner in a European essay contest. High on her success, she takes on a more ambitious essay challenge, entitled "My Hometown During the Third Reich," and her troubles begin.
In the local archives she finds out about an old Nazi called Zumtobel, as well as a 1930s news article about two priests whose obviously dishonest testimony sent a Jew to his death. When she goes to the local newspaper editor (Hans-Richard Muller) about both items, she finds him curiously unhelpful.
She encounters further resistance at every quarter. Neo-Nazis threaten her. She is barred from the library. The essay deadline passes. She becomes engrossed with her new marriage to former teacher Martin (Robert Giggenbach). But she doesn't lose sight of her mission and, despite ominous battle lines between her and the town, continues to investigate Pfilzing's past.
The humorous shadings are everywhere. A young Sonya, for instance, attempts to liberate the cooked Friday fish by tipping it into the canal. Later, when agitators lob a bomb into Sonya's household, her panicked husband leaps on top of it and smothers the burning fuse. When another bomb explodes in a different part of the house, he's convinced for a slapstick moment that he's dead. When Sonya walks into a court hearing to defend herself, she imagines herself, in a Joan-of-Arc-like reverie, to be burning at the stake. By treating potentially nasty moments in this way, Verhoeven points tacitly to the moral questions with disarming effectiveness.
THE NASTY GIRL (PG-13) -- Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Outer Circle.