An alarming, ceaselessly compelling motion picture from Germany, Combat Girls touches on a subject often left behind and treats its themes with respect. Directed by David Wnendt, this picture approaches the typical coming of age drama with the neo-Nazi youth movement in Germany serving as a backdrop.
What's more, Combat Girls focuses on the females of the neo-Nazi movement - an often forgotten side of the story in a typically male-dominated realm. For Wnendt, there is something very powerful and intoxicating about what lures young women to such a combative, ferocious, devastating culture.
Marisa (Alina Levshin) is a 20-year-old German woman who lives and works with her mother (Rosa Enskat) and has an affinity for her dying grandfather (Klaus Manchen). She is also ensconced in the neo-Nazi culture and is madly in lust with her brawny boyfriend Sandro (Gerdy Zint).
The story also follows 15-year-old Svenja (Jella Haase), who is looking for a place to happen. Her step-father (Uwe Preuss) is domineering and her mother (Winnie Bowe) sends mixed messages, so young Svenja finds herself drawn to a landscaper (Lukas Steltner) with ties to the neo-Nazis.
Combat Girls follows the two young women through the neo-Nazi subculture and also introduces a young Afghani refugee (Sayed Ahmad Wasil Mrowat) to push Marisa's moral journey ahead. This helps the narrative of the two girls dovetail as well, serving as a reminder of how the experience of empathy can lead to constructive decision-making.
Wnendt chooses not to serve the controversial subject matter in exploitative fashion; he instead focuses on close-ups of faces, even during some of the more violent moments, and tells a deeply personal tale of two young women that is couched in hate. The hostility of the neo-Nazis is less a historical document and more a context for what's missing in the characters' lives.
That's not to say there isn't a moral compass to the motion picture, of course. Wnendt is very interested in the evolution of his characters and how they walk the path to hate. For Svenja, the lure is that of rebellion. When she first encounters the visage of Hitler in the form of a goofy mask, she doesn't even know who she is. Later, she's painting racist epithets on her family's wall.
Marisa's journey seems to come from similar stock - at one point, she tells Svenja that they're awfully alike. Her grandfather's influence is made clearer as the picture moves on; she has him on a pedestal of sorts, even if he may not deserve it. And Marisa's mother's late revelation shakes her but it doesn't quite do the trick.
With that in mind, that's really how Marisa's journey unfolds. There are several incidents that shake her foundations but don't cause her to change her ways. There are several things that would undermine the morality of even the least of us, but Marisa doesn't falter. But when things do begin to uproot, they do so with subtlety and without histrionics.
A lot of that is the result of Levshin's phenomenal performance. She unlock windows of emotion and rage with her eyes alone, portraying a deeply wounded woman without venturing into larger displays of feeling. Nothing in her performance screams “acting” and the organic quality to her motions and her existence in the all-too-real world of Combat Girls is fantastic stuff.
Combat Girls works because it avoids the cliches that often sink the genre into melodramatic terrain. It's a careful picture, one that can be hard to watch due to its subject matter, but it packs a crucial narrative about the progression of ideals and the lure of destructiveness for young people searching for meaning in a negligent world.
Thanks to the good people at Artsploitation Films, Combat Girls is now available in North America on DVD. Their release features an eight-page booklet with a write-up by Travis Crawford, trailers for other Artsploitation releases and an insightful interview with Levshin.