Few things are more inherently frightening to someone born in the 20th century than the Nazi movement. And for good reason, as it set forth (and almost succeeded) in whipping out an entire ethnicity from the face of the planet no more than 75 years ago. And while the tenets of the National Socialist Party may seem outdated and useless in our modern world, some of the unbridled hate lives on in conflicted youths around the world, most notably in Germany. Such is the central focus of David Wnendt’s debut feature, Combat Girls. It’s all about that most frightening skinhead subset: the rebellious teenage girl who loves Adolf Hitler.
The story begins with introductions to Marisa and Svenja. On either end of the spectrum is where they reside at first. We meet Marisa, complete with her Third Reich tattoo collection and her reverse-mullet hairdo, fully in the Neo-Nazi movement and loving her time spent with her equally bent boyfriend. They beat up Asian people on the train, sling race epithets at strangers and in one very telling moment along her path, commit grievous crimes against other humans. All in the name of a movement that essentially flamed out a half-century ago. Svenja starts out different, the quiet, well-schooled suburban girl searching for identity and finding it in the most likely and unfortunate places: boys. Only her boy leads her down the rabbit’s hole into the movement, where she and Marisa butt heads, bare witness to pain and suffering and ultimately find themselves as more than just kindred spirits.
The core narrative, woven with complexity by writer/direct Wnendt, isn’t just about life as a Neo-Nazi youth in suburban journey. His film has a lot to say about the search for identity and the way sometimes has a way of making us pay for the wrongs we’ve brought upon other members of the human race. It’s a strong statement — led by a magnetic lead performance by Alina Levshin as Marisa — about faith and following. As Marisa is confronted with a young Afghan refugee and her own actions toward him, she evolves to see that her world isn’t quite so black and white. This evolution is a slow burn, but well-earned by the end.
Gritty and methodical, Combat Girls represents an opening salvo from a filmmaking talent worth keeping an eye on. Wnendt shows patience in his unraveling of Marisa’s story and a careful hand in creating a sympathetic character out of a girl who wants to have Adolf Hitler tattoo’d on her left shoulder. It’s the complexity in the characters that drives the story forward toward it’s unnerving finish. It’s a message heard loud and clear by its audience.
The Upside: A strong lead performance and an impressive debut writing/directing effort deliver a film that packs a punch thematically.
The Downside: It’s a slow, complex burn that pays off, but may create strays along the way. It’s also tender subject-matter, especially in the film’s unnerving moments of explosive hate.
On the Side: “Composer Johannes Repka even created faux Neo-Nazi punk music specifically for the film. This attention to authenticity is not done for the purpose of sensationalism, but to support the film’s compelling story and complex characters.” Courtesy of the official Fantastic Fest guide.