Combat Girls – David Wnendt – 2011

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Combat Girls is about two young girls, one around fifteen, the other 19. Marisa, the elder, is girlfriend to Sandro, one of the biggest neo-nazi punks in town. Svenja, the younger is drawn to her lawnkeeper, a coke dealer, and a member of the gang. As Svenja is drawn deeper and deeper into the world of nazi’s, events transpire in Marisa’s life that begins to steer her away from the violent lifestyle.

Alina Levshin as Marisa is a marvel. As the film begins she is at once fiercely objectionable, and compelling and sexy as character.  She is a wall of fire, burning everything in her path. But as the film makes its way through the twists and turns of the plot, her subtle transformation is revelatory. Levshin creates a woman whose definitions of humanity could be so far from the viewer, but the story steers the film to a place where most would be rooting for her at the end.

The nazi’s in this film are not stereotypes, but gritty, realistic, hillbillies. These men meet in apartment parties and watch old propaganda films, and begin the brainwashing of a new generation. But director Wnendt gives the scenes with these people a chaotic, nerve-racking feel. These scenes had me chewing my nails on the edge of the seat.

Anything can and does often happen when these wound-up malevolents are on screen. When Sandro gets out from a short bit and finds Svenja’s man dealing coke at a gathering, he kicks his ass out the door. But Svenja opts to stay and listen to what the older men at the party are saying.

Jella Hasse is great as Svenja. Without her descent into the darkness, Levshin’s rising motion has no counterpoint. Svenja course is believable, and she gets in for what seems a fairly innocent reason to begin with, a boy. By the time he invites her to a party it’s too late. The hooks are in. As Svenja and Marisa begin their “friendship” Marisa is harsh with her, but Hasse plays the admiration in her eyes perfectly. She so clearly wants to be like Marisa, well, Marisa as she is at the beginning of the film, a hellion of chaos, with no regard for others.

The film is brilliant in the way it intertwines the trajectories of these two women.  Svenja is younger and has no respect for her parents. She finds the world of these thugs fascinating. Though we are never given Marisa’s backstory, one is to believe her origin was very like Svenja’s.

Marisa is learning that she must take responsibility for her actions. Through events I don’t want to give away, her view becomes less one-sided, and basically, she grows a heart and a conscience. Often, material like this can slide into melodrama, but the intense behavior she exemplifies in the first half of the film and the constant threat of scary punks keep this film squarely on a genre bent.

The film looks and sounds beautiful. Often using only natural sound and almost always using natural light, Combat girls is shot with a soft eye, giving an intimacy and poetic look to its volatile and dynamic subjects. A few times, Wnendt uses actual songs to an incredibly creepy effect.

Early in the film he sets a particularly vicious scene to harsh nazi-metal. This scene is one shot, of Alina Levshin’s face, and I don’t want to give away the context, but this shot and her acting in it is absolutely bone chilling. Another time, during a party, many young men sing a pleasant sounding nazi song. The lyrics are as jingoistic and awful as that sounds, but the camaraderie and brotherhood reflected in the scene makes it doubly so. These men are another generation of hate.

Is it dangerous?  I really couldn’t say. Great art is often dangerous. I had conversations with people after I saw the film that thought it might be interpreted as crossing a moral line. I certainly don’t think the film glamorizes or moralizes the nazi-punk lifestyle, nor do I think the film rewards Marisa’s transformation. But, the film does play out in a believable and satisfying fashion. The ending makes perfect sense based on where each character is mentally at that point in the story.

I found the film extremely powerful and moving. It is harsh at times and often thrilling. Every moment of the story examines a constantly shifting moral barometer and the various psychological stimuli that can affect and intensify those shifts. Recommended for lovers of fine and difficult art.

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