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The Holocaust: The Nasty Girl

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The Nasty Girl wears bunny slippers, has a head full of frosted curls and giggles like a school kid. Anna Rosmus doesn't look like a nosy, know-it-all Nazi hunter. It's hard to imagine her mother-in-law saying that because of people like Rosmus, Germany needs another Hitler. Hard to imagine the mayor, the priests and many of her family's friends deciding that Rosmus is so evil that she deserves to be "gassed, chopped up and pulverized," as some of Passau's leading citizens said. Rosmus is a 30-year-old graduate student and the inspiration for German director Michael Verhoeven's "The Nasty Girl," which opens today in Washington. The film, the story of Rosmus's decade-long battle with her hometown during the late '70s and through most of the 1980s, is much like Rosmus -- determined, cheeky, charming and even funny.

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Other people, you tell them the same thing, they get a curious kind of tingling sensation, and go leaping after other people's business like a retriever in a good mood. Sonja Rosenberger is the other kind of person, and "The Nasty Girl" is the story of what happened after the town fathers in her village in Bavaria told her not to go poking around in the archives to discover what went on during the Nazi era. Before the authorities made what turned out to be that major miscalculation, Sonja was an unremarkable, if high-spirited, local schoolgirl, who had won an essay contest that provided her with a free trip to Paris. But then another contest came along, and Sonja thought maybe a hometown essay would win it. Something along the lines of "My Hometown in the Third Reich." The town fathers did not share her enthusiasm. The official line in her home town was that the Nazis had not made much of an inroad there, but when she went to the village library to dig through old newspapers and archives, she found them closed to her, and she grew determined to discover what the city was trying to hide. That's the story line of Michael Verhoeven's "The Nasty Girl" (nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film), titled after one of the less offensive names hurled at Sonja during her quest. The movie is based on the experiences of a real girl in a real town: Anja Rosmus, whose home town of Passau did indeed have certain undeniable links with the Nazis. Hitler once lived there, in a house converted to a museum during the Third Reich, and Eichmann was married there. Over a period of 10 years, Rosmus pursued her quest in the archives and in the courts, proving at one point that the editor of the local Catholic newspaper - who was hailed as a resistance hero - in fact wrote pro-Hitler editorials and even urged his readers to pray for the fuehrer. These revelations did not make Rosmus popular in her hometown; she received anonymous phone threats, she was once beaten up by neo-Nazis, and her high school teacher, whom she had married, left her after things began to heat up. All of these events are faithfully mirrored in the film, which has been made in a curiously lighthearted spirit and is not the dirge we might have expected. Lena Stolze, in the title role, is given to yodeling when she uncovers another piece of damning evidence, and her character in the movie has been compared by some critics to Nancy Drew.

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This film depicts a fictionalised version of historian Anna Rosmus’ research into her hometown’s Nazi past. As research for a school essay contest about ‘my town during the Third Reich,’ Sonja Wegmus uncovers news articles that suggest that the small town of Pfilzing was not the beacon of resistance she had always believed it to be. She discovers a news article detailing a dispute about underwear between two Pfilzinger citizens and a Jewish merchant, but the language used in the article is highly anti-semitic and accuses the merchant of using occult tactics to deceive the buyers. Alerted, Sonja continues her research and finds more material that suggests the population’s explicit collaboration in the persecution and extermination of Jews. Even though she misses the contest’s deadline, she continues to investigate her town’s history during her studies at university, while continually being discouraged from doing so by everyone around her. When prominent town figures catch wind of what she is doing, they try to prevent Sonja from accessing the most incriminating archival material. After several years of legal battle and ever-increasing social exclusion (which ends in a violent attack on her life), Sonja finally gains access to the official documents that confirm her suspicions: Pfilzing was deeply involved and compliant in the exclusion and murder of its Jewish citizens. After this information is now brought out into the open by the essay-turned-book Sonja has written on ‘my town during the Third Reich,’ the town suddenly turns and welcomes her back with open arms as their very own heroine of truth. However, Sonja sees through this attempt at pacification and rejects the honour, which ends the film on a bitter note. The film is a satirical comedy, using humour to address the issues surrounding Germany’s Nazi past. It employs overt staging and breaking of the fourth wall to highlight the performativity and increasing absurdity of the town’s desperate attempt to keep its secrets in the past (Levin, David, 1998). For example, the scenes in the archive take place on a theatre stage in front of a screen on which the background is projected, which emphasises the fabricated and rehearsed manner through which Sonja is kept out of the archive. The town’s landmarks are often substituted by the same screen-projection method, which makes the background literally interchangeable: such scenes could have been shot in any German town. Furthermore, in addition to Sonja’s voice-over and scenes in which she addresses the audience explicitly, the townspeople who are accused of collaboration are also given the chance to directly address the viewer (Rosmus, Anna, 2000). This gives the sense that they are being interrogated by the viewer, and their attempts at covering up their involvement seem even more unconvincing and pathetic when directly addressed to the audience.

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In essence, 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.

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Levin, David. “Are We Victims Yet? Resistance and Community in ‘The White Rose,’ ‘Five Last Days,’ and ‘The Nasty Girl.’ Germanic Review 73, no. 1 (1998): 86-100.

Rosmus, Anna. “From Reality to Fiction: Anna Rosmus as the ‘Nasty Girl’.” Religion and the Arts 4, no. 1 (2000): 113-143.

Verhoeven, Michael, dir. The Nasty Girl (Das schreckliche Mädchen). Filmverlag der Autoren, Sentana Filmproduktion, ZDF, 1990.

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The Holocaust: The Nasty Girl
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