How many of us blanch when our children ask, "What did you do in the war, Daddy?" and we have to answer with something wan like, "I wrote news releases about, er, parades." Hmmmm. Not fun. But think how much less fun it would be to answer, "I murdered Jews."
That's the crux of Michael Verhoeven's "The Nasty Girl," opening zTC today at the Charles, an acerbic account of one daughter who asks the question of the village elders and their extreme reluctance to answer it.
The movie is drawn from an authentic and sensational case: As a high school project, a young West German woman named Anna Elizabeth Rosmus set out to document the adventures of her prosperous little Bavarian town during the rough times, 1933-1945. She quickly and unpleasantly discovered how many of the stories she'd heard about "the resistance" were self-aggrandizing myths and that the truth was more banal and more depressing.
It wasn't that they were the architects of the Final Solution, strutting, black-uniformed SS Obersturmbannfuhrers who sent the millions east. But in a sense, they were worse: They let it happen in their stodgy acquiescence, their insistence on looking the other way, their obedience to petty rules, their surrender to peer pressure and political correctness.
But Verhoeven hasn't made a docudrama, in any sense of that word. Rather, he has reimagined the events into a kind of symbolic -- but darkly comic -- tableau. Where conventional liberal piety would run thin at the halfway point, Verhoeven's joy is in discovering still more levels of folly and dissembling in the postcard-pretty burg.
In fact, the movie takes place in a kind of surreal zone. The village itself feels real enough, but it quickly becomes almost a stage setting. When Verhoeven re-creates a library, a newspaper office, a chocolate factory or whatever, he doesn't do it literally, refusing to use the camera's ability to penetrate and record or at least re-create reality. Rather, he places his actors in stagy compositions before what appears to be a back-projected slide of such a setting's essence -- the "library," for example, looks to be an image from some library archives of the mid-19th century.
This device is somewhat distancing. I'm not sure, up front, what benefit it provides to the story; over the long haul, one finds oneself simply ignoring it and providing, in the mind's eye, a more "realistic" setting. Symbolic forms of expression, like theater, turn on the power of the performances and the writing to transcend the limitations of the proscenium setting. The film has a different aesthetic, however; we bring an expectation of a higher reality to the movie house, and when that's blunted, one wants an immediately apparent reason and some immediate payback.
The performances, meanwhile, are first rate. Lena Stolze plays Verhoeven's Nasty Girl with equal parts of spunk and charm. She's like a character out of a Disney live-action comedy from the '60s, a Hayley Mills loose in the theme park of the darker residue of the Second World War. Indefatigably she digs, and the movie is at its best in covering her creativity in dealing with obstacles.
Verhoeven, incidentally, is no relative to the Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, who made his name in Hollywood with "Robocop" and "Total Recall." That is probably a good thing.
The Nasty Girl'
Starring Lena Stolze.
Directed by Michael Verhoeven.
Released by Miramax.