Michael Verhoeven’s film “The Nasty Girl” is Germany’s entry in the foreign-language category in this year’s Academy Awards. It is an occasionally surrealistic and often very funny account of a teen-aged Fraulein’s distinctly unfunny and dangerous attempts to investigate the Nazi years in her hometown.
Her discoveries--of those who collaborated in the persecuting of the Jews and those who kept silent, and of the young thugs who 50 years later still think Hitler was on the right track--were grim, and the more incongruous because they are made by so cheerful, sexy and unlikely a researcher. The film’s sometimes bizarre tone was evidently Verhoeven’s way of pointing up the incongruity.
Events have been fictionalized in some degree. The real town, Passau, has become “Pfilzing.” The girl, Sonja, played by Lena Stolze, was really Anja Rosmus and the essence of the story is quite true, including the revelations, the death threats, a mugging and her reputation as a nasty girl.
Rosmus, now 30 and a divorced mother of two, was in the United States in December, visiting some of the 15 former Jewish residents of Passau who, by mail, helped her launch her research into the town’s past.
“Many of them,” Rosmus said during a luncheon interview, “are so homesick, but they’re still afraid to come back.” It’s not surprising, she adds. The 100th birthday of Adolf Hitler was celebrated locally, and there were cookies in the shape of swastikas, cakes with Hitler’s likeness on them. The town of 20,000 is in Bavaria near the Austro-Czech border, and both Hitler and Adolf Eichmann lived there at various times and Heinrich Himmler’s father taught in a local high school.
Rosmus began her quest, as the film says, in 1980 as an essay on the town’s history to be entered in a national contest. The odd silences she met led her to place an ad in the German-Jewish newspaper Aufbau, which is published in New York, seeking former Jewish residents of Passau now living in the United States.
She had 15 replies from Maine to San Francisco and began corresponding with the writers, getting leads about people to interview and specific questions to ask. As she read through the backfiles of the local newspaper she realized that there had been what she calls “a brown area"--a whole series of events never reported at the time. (One clue to what was going on: “little notices that said such-and-such a store was no longer owned by Jews.”)
No one had written of the time. “No papers, no essay, no book . . . . But if nobody remembers these things, it’s like the murders being done a second time.”
Interviews with her in the media about her battles to gain access to city archives, for example, made her notorious and led to her being characterized as “the nasty girl.” She published her first book, “A Case of Resistance and Persecution, Passau 1933-39,” in 1983. She has since published three more and is working on a fifth. In 1982 she entered the local university but was forced to leave, ostensibly on grounds that she had one child and was expecting a second (she had married a teacher). Now, after another long legal battle, she has been allowed to re-enter the university and in February will take her first exams as a freshman again (taking the required freshman history course, despite at least one honorary degree she has been awarded for her work as a historian).
She, somewhat ironically, was reared as a Catholic, since the local church did not come off well in her researches. Her father, she has said, was “the prototype of a Prussian civil servant;” her mother still teaches in a parochial school.
The resentments of the nasty girl turned really nasty soon enough. There have been threats on her life and on her children, daughters now 6 and 8. She has been honored, but also ostracized. Her children can still not lead normal, unprotected lives. Her mother has also earned the wrath of neighbors.
“I was struck down in a pizzeria by a man in an SS uniform. I don’t know if he was a neo-Nazi or had been paid for it. There were 100 persons or more around me, but nobody gave help to me. I lost consciousness for a moment, then I had to inform the police myself.” The station was just around the corner but it was two hours before an officer showed up. No one was arrested.
A restaurant where she had spoken was trashed by neo-Nazis. She asked the German equivalent of the FBI for protection but was told it was reserved for politicians. However, the Passau police began patrolling her house after she and her children were threatened, and the watch continued for several years.
In Hamburg, after a speech of hers had been reported in the paper, a man rushed at her brandishing a knife. Three volunteer bodyguards subdued him. But no arrest was made: “I couldn’t prove if it was only an ugly joke,” she says.
Verhoeven and his wife came to hear her speak as she was being honored for her work, and decided then to do a film. He has also made a documentary, “The Girl and the City, or What Really Happened.” Rosmus had nothing to do with the feature, but admired it. Halfway through her first viewing she had to leave the cinema, feeling she couldn’t experience the bad things again. “It was an enormous surprise that somebody who hadn’t been with me, having no knowledge of this time, shows me exactly as it was.”
The new mayor of Passau is a Socialist. Rosmus wrote an open letter protesting that he should resign the job because she found he had been in the Hitler Youth and had denounced a woman who then went to a concentration camp. The mayor was forced to meet the press and, she says, refused to resign. “That’s not a reason to give back the job,” she says, paraphrasing him; “because if that would be a reason not to be a mayor, we couldn’t elect any mayor.”
The estimates are that there are 30,000 neo-Nazis in what was West Germany and another 30,000 in the former East Germany. “But these 60,000 persons are not the real problem,” Rosmus argues. “Everybody knows their faces, their names. They are officially neo-Nazis. You could observe their activities, their gatherings.”
The real problem, she thinks, is the silent conservative majority. “You don’t know their faces, don’t know their names . . . . They refuse, very strongly, any responsibility for survivors and victims, any responsibility toward our refugees and other minorities. They refuse it and they deny the past.
“These 30,000 or 60,000 crazy persons, these neo-Nazis, don’t know really what they are doing with these swastikas. For a lot of them it’s a joke. But this silent majority, this majority that may not do civil disobedience, I think we have to be careful with them.”