‘Combat Girls’ Review
An angry and confused young neo-Nazi on a personal journey that will change their life doesn't sound like anything we haven't seen before, except in this case the angry and confused young neo-Nazi is a woman. 'Combat Girls' is a unique coming of age story that subverts expectations and transcends beyond the crude lifestyle of its lead to find a beating, raging heart.
Marisa is a young, tattooed neo-Nazi whose boyfriend has just been sent to prison and her WWII vet grandfather (and Nazi) is lying on his death bed. Struggling to cope with the sadness, Marisa internalizes her feelings and manufactures them into rage, but when she encounters a poor Pakistani boy in need of help, she can't ignore her own humanity. With the oppressive presence of her male counterpart locked away and her grandfather slipping out of her life, Marisa begins to slowly emerge from the cocoon of hate that's been built around her and reaches out to Rasul. The scenes between them where they try to communicate with their limited ability to understand each other are absolutely beautiful. Marisa describes the tattoo of Hitler she wants to get on her arm. Rasul traces the journey he's taken across Europe and the Middle East on a map for her. The pair have nothing common other than their humanity, but 'Combat Girls' proves that sometimes that's enough.
Also taking a journey of her own is Svenjja, a 15 year old girl from a privileged suburban background who has had it with her domineering stepfather and her mother's complacency. Searching for her identity brings her to the neo-Nazi group and Marisa, where she demands a place by their side. 'Combat Girls' examines the ways in which we desperately grasp for meaning in life during the various stages of becoming an adult. For Marisa, it's trying to leave her violent life behind and struggling with the idea of a fabricated identity versus her heart. As teens we find a clique or a style and we cling to it to define who we are because we aren't yet able to communicate our feelings or desires with maturity -- sometimes we take these things to extreme lengths to get our point across, and 'Combat Girls' uses the neo-Nazi movement as a symbol of youthful anger and resentment, but it never forgets what the movement means and the hate it stands for and inflicts.
Writer and director David Wnendt has crafted a truly brave, provocative experience, and while his direction is remarkable, the truly inspiring element comes in the form of actress Alina Levshin. Her portrayal of Marisa is a breathtaking, gut-wrenching one that is best expressed in a scene where her boyfriend is trying to figure out why she won't return his affection. He slaps her, and she doesn't respond. Instead, the camera closes in on her face and we watch as Levshin's face tells us everything we need to know about who she is. What she does with her expressions here is uncanny, wordlessly taking her sadness and swallowing it and transforming it into anger before her face finally breaks and gives way to a flood of tears.
It's no easy task creating a sympathetic character out of a violent neo-Nazi, but we've seen the story before with 'American History X,' 'Romper Stomper,' and the oft-forgotten 2001 film 'The Believer,' starring Ryan Gosling. Never before have we gotten this story from a woman's perspective. 'Combat Girls' explores growth and maturation, but it also details the ways in which a strong woman exists in a staunchly misogynist culture and how she begins to remove herself from it. Marisa and Svenja become complicit in their own oppression by a group they've joined to be oppressive.
'Combat Girls' isn't just a familiar story about neo-Nazis and hate -- it's a beautiful coming of age drama whose characters flow in and out of their own emotions like the film's gorgeous scenes of ocean tides coming in and moving away from the shore, symbolizing what we internalize and how we put it back out into the world. Every time that tide pulls in and sucks in the sand and shells, it gives something back -- maybe it's the same as what it took, but sometimes it leaves a gift.