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Combat Girls

Director: David Wnendt
Cast: Alina Levshin, Jella Haase, Gerdy Zint

(US DVD: 9 Jul 2013)

Neo-Nazi narratives are always disturbing, and none more so, for obvious reasons, than those that hail from Germany itself. Combat Girls is a film that focuses on the neo-Nazi underworld in a small, unspecified German city.


Marisa and her boyfriend Sandro are members of a loose affiliation of racist, skinhead thugs whose idea of fun is to go around threatening and harassing anyone who doesn’t adhere to their ideology: Muslims, East Asians, even native-born Germans whose hair is too long or who look on with disapproval. When Sandro goes over the line one day, he’s hauled away by the police, further weakening Marisa’s already-fragile self-control. Before long she herself commits an act of brutality, with consequences that she appears to, unexpectedly, regret. It’s the first shaky step on the path of reassessing her beliefs.


This is far from a straightforward redemption narrative, however. Nazism is such a disgusting worldview that one does not fall into it easily or without extensive thought, and neither is one going to break free of it based on one regrettable action, however dire. Where the movie excels is at showing Marisa’s evolution, not away from Nazism but rather through it, as other elements are mixed into a stew that does not altogether want them—elements like compassion and simple decency and, yes, even the urge to have bear and nurture a child. These changes are suggested obliquely, and actress Alina Levshin gets great mileage out of her tortured mouth and soulful eyes, suggesting inner struggles that are rarely made explicit. These features go a long way toward leavening what could have been, in less skilled hands, a pat and unbelievable series of actions.


Further complicating this setup is the introduction of Svenja, a 15-year-old girl who comes within the orbit of Marisa and her friends, and whose own flirtation with National Socialism echoes what we know of Marisa’s own indroctination years earlier. It’s tempting to lay the film out schematically: as Svenja moves toward Nazism, Marisa moves away from it. However, this oversimplifies the concerns of the movie, as neither journey is so clear-cut. The presence of a pair of Afghani brothers muddies the waters even more. At first the target of Marisa’s scorn, their relationship soon becomes more complex, causing tensions between Marisa and her boyfriend—and within Marisa herself.


Combat Girls is compellingly filmed, with steady, relentless pacing and viscerally effective (although brief) scenes of violence. Structurally, as well, the film is gripping, utilizing a circular structure that introduces the climax at first, then circles back, building toward the inevitably tragic outcome. The color palette is washed out and grim, lending small-town Germany an unwelcome, unpleasant air, while sharp bursts of music are used deliberately to underscore moments of recklessness or abandon. (Want to scare yourself? Try listening to neo-Nazi heavy metal—in German. That should do it.)


Performances are solid throughout, with Levshin and Jella Haase outstanding as Marisa and Svenja respectively. Gerdy Zint as Marisa’s boyfriend Sandro is also convincing and terrifying. One criticism of the movie concerns the parents of both women; the adults in this drama are forgettable and weak. Perhaps that’s the point, but the cartoonishly ineffective parental authority in the storyline is tough to believe, especially in contrast with the verisimilitude of the skinhead party scene.


Extras on the Artsploitation Film DVD are few but useful, including an interesting eight-page booklet with commentary on the film and a bit of background about Germany’s far-right movement, written by Travis Crawford, contributor to 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Besides this, there is an illuminating 12-minute onstage interview with Alina Levshin, in which she discusses her preparation for the role, a process which involved immersing herself in neo-Nazi material and propaganda. She also touches on how she understands the character of Marisa, and explicates some of her ideas about Marisa’s past that are not made explicit on the film itself.


Combat Girls does not make for easy or uplifting viewing, but it certainly deserves to be widely seen. According to Crawford’s essay, there are something like ten thousand neo-Nazis in Germany today. For anyone who is as baffled by that statistic as I am—and I hope that’s most anyone reading this review—this is a movie that needs to be seen, and discussed, and passed along.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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