“Combat Girls” covers familiar terrain with its fictive portrait of racist-fascist youth in the dreary socioeconomic landscape of today’s post-Iron Curtain East Germany. But nothing feels rehashed in writer-director David Wnendt’s first commercial feature, a potent drama that offers a perspective both punchy and ambivalent on a female protagonist whose indiscriminate rage challenges without obliterating viewer empathy. An award-winning success on home turf earlier this year, the pic has been sold to several offshore territories so far. Artsploitation Films announced acquisition of all North American rights last month, with rollout planned for early 2013.
A young woman who’d be pretty if she didn’t have her hair shorn in a sort of reverse mohawk, Marisa (Alina Levshin) invites and enjoys confrontation at every opportunity. She’s first seen eagerly joining a roving pack of skinheads as they terrorize train passengers (particularly an Asian couple). Her b.f., Sandro (Gerdy Zint), is leader of a local neo-Nazi sect, and while she enjoys the status that comes from being Girlfriend No. 1, she also chafes against the inevitable, subservient gender role in this boys-gone-wild context. Her discontent is further fueled by her home life with her coldly distant mother (Rosa Enskat), who’s separated from Marisa’s terminally ill father, and by a tedious job at the family grocery store.
Retaliating after an altercation, Marisa uses her car to run two motorcycle-riding Afghan refugees off the road. Plagued by guilt — or perhaps just fear of jail, particularly once Sandro earns a short prison stint for some prior hijinks — she lets herself be semi-blackmailed into helping young asylum seeker Rasul (Sayed Ahmad). He wants to join an older friend who’s now living with relatives in Sweden, but he has no resources or even temporary shelter. Despite her anti-immigrant rhetoric, Marisa finds herself secretly aiding his cause.
Meanwhile, comfortably middle-class Svenja (Jella Haase), who’s 14 but looks younger, seeks to ingratiate herself with Sandro’s gang — not out of any ideological zeal, but simply as the most offensive form of rebellion against her overly strict parents. She’s treated at first as an unwanted interloper by Marisa, but the two commence a tenuous friendship that eventually, and fatefully, encompasses Rasul as well. Barriers of language, maturity and emotional need all push this fragile alliance toward tragedy.
Showing rather than telling, Wnendt doesn’t spell out the complicated psychological impulses that drive these characters to hostile acts and/or self-destruction, making all the more powerful a chilling flashback that pinpoints a reason for Marisa’s glib ultra-conservatism. Most of the characters seem to have embraced political extremism as a channel for personal anger and frustration rather than committed belief, and we eventually glimpse enough of their vulnerabilities to make nearly everyone sympathetic to a degree. (Even Sandro is something of a victim, genuinely in love with an antiheroine who can’t express, or perhaps even feel, that emotion.) Perfs are first-rate.
Eschewing stylistic showiness, the pic is sharply assembled on all fronts.