The Nasty Girl (1990)

(a.k.a. Das Schreckliche Mädchen)

D: Michael Verhoeven
S: Lena Stolze, Hans-Reinhard Müller, Monika Baumgarter.

Unlikely to appear on any 'greatest films' lists and not a work of enormous import or influence even on a national scale, Michael Verhoeven's black comedy is notable nonetheless on several levels and from several perspectives.

In itself it is the often funny, sometimes disturbing tale of a young woman's attempt to document the history of her home town during the Second World War against the wishes of the amassed forces of past and present repression. It is based on the true story of Anja Rosmus, but the script, written by the director, is fictionalised to the extent that he claims it is concerned not with particular events in one woman's life, but the attitudes lurking beneath the surface in any German town. It is a witty and pointed probe into the uncomfortable spaces of hidden history.

The film may be approached on one hand in terms of the obvious feminist content. It concerns itself with a woman's struggle not only to assert herself, but to play an active role in the formation of society. Centred on a strong performance from Lena Stolze, the character of Sonia emerges as a single-minded, self-realised individual whose determination to uncover the truth is related to her refusal to accept the role which has been assigned to her by society at large. But it is not so naive as to suggest that this struggle does not have its costs, and it is neither triumphalist nor trendy in its treatment of this particular issue.

We might also examine the film in terms of its meditation on the role of history. It is centrally concerned with a particular moment in history in a particular country which has importance on a world scale (the Nazi regime in 1930s and 40s Germany). Yet it serves as a microcosm for societal attitudes to the war, and to issues about the how past serves, informs and continually underlies the present in any town in any country. There is always a story that no one will talk about, and a part of history still blurred by the emotions of survivors and their descendants. Though it is often said that history is written by the winners, this film looks at just what that means for the Truth.

It might also be spoken of in terms of being among the wave of comedies which followed the end of the New German Cinema. With the ascension to international standing of the Oberhausen generation, the despair about political and social frustrations and depression about issues of 'Germanness' were dissipated. Filmmakers began to look to the escapism of the post-war period (when films on 'serious' subjects were not allowed) for new role models. Romantic comedies and farces followed in relatively large numbers, though few were seen outside of Germany. Yet the best among them incorporated the discursive dimension of the New German Cinema, integrating social and political concerns with humour.

It is also a stylish film, demonstrating strong theatrical influences and a keen eye for cinematic and televisual convention. It uses both black and white and colour and deliberately emphasises artificial sets, props, and backdrops (one scene is filmed on the back of a moving, open-top truck dressed up to resemble a family sitting room). Aware that a more orthodox film would be easily forgotten and that a documentary would be less likely to reach its audience, Verhoeven chose a style which combined elements of several different forms. It draws attention to itself as an amalgam of visual and structural conventions. In doing so it achieves similar effects to those used by the French nouvelle vague to distance the viewer from the spectacle and draw them into a consideration of the questions being raised by the film rather than the mechanics of its story.

Its employment of black humour may be seen to have a similar purpose, though it also provides the film with a stable centre. No matter what angle it is seen from, its off-the-wall attitude and its disturbing underside are in constant, uncomfortable opposition. The audience is kept shifting between laughter and paranoia, all the while doubting the appropriateness of laughing with a film which depicts events such as the bombing of Sonia's home by Neo-Nazis and the wartime collaboration with Hitler's Government which may have resulted in innocent Jews being sent to concentration camps branded as criminals.

It is in doing so that the film is most effective. Its mixture of fact and fiction, comedy and paranoia thriller, and theatre and cinema keeps the audience off-balance. Verhoeven realises that anger can be articulated through humour to devastating effect, and though it seems casual and flippant, the film is ultimately a powerful, unflinching stare at the German soul on a par with the more downbeat, depressing and 'arty' films which preceded it. Its final moments are chilling in a way that would not have been effective had the story been told any other way.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.