In one of the opening scenes from “Kriegerin” (“Combat Girls” in English), a group of kids, neo-nazis, walk down the aisle of a metro bus. Loud, brash, sneering, they are hunting prey, and what better place to hunt than public transportation. Spotting a target, it hardly matters to this film where they’re from. It could be anyone from anywhere. When that two minutes of cinema is done, you’re reeling with anger, your heart pounding.
Marisa’s mom is a store clerk. So is Marisa. Their relationship hums with electricity and a family history that is not revealed, but which you sense. Her kindly grandfather is her anchor. Marisa’s mom despises him—a peculiar triangle that you’ll understand only when the director thinks it’s time.
The problem of films about neo-nazis is the formulaic nature of the subject matter. No one, including me, wants to see a sympathetic portrayal of this darkness. So midway through the film, I am wondering why I am still watching David Wnendt’s fractured jewel. It follows all the predictable paths: issues of anger management in public, a hatred that is equal parts focused and without direction, ridiculous parties, disaffected home life, music reminiscent of the Black Flag sound, but with no Henry Rollins poetry to save it. Introduce a couple of kids from Afghanistan, and the film starts crackling like a science experiment.
But Wnendt is way better than letting the free radicals run their course. A child wants to join the club. Potent and glistening, she walks away from the loveless confines of her upper-class suburb and immediately finds acceptance. A man half-bull, half-serpent shows up with propaganda to a party, his real purpose to pawn off a gun. A video shows “Jews” killing livestock—because only the pure hearts of the neo-nazis are against such horrors. This is a script like almost none I’ve seen, and the numerous awards that Combat Girls collects attests to that. At no point do you imagine you could walk inside this lion cage, but Wnendt does not want you to hate all the animals at the zoo. Just specific ones.
When you begin to realize this amazing director understood the formula all along and was using bits of it as antidote for various toxicities, the story is far, far along. Combat Girls is far too good to be ruined by me telling you all the final pieces, other than to note that it is a script no neo-nazi will like, and yet, in no way does it imply that there is the possibility of an epiphany awaiting all these tattooed, raging beasts. Prior to the screening of this film, a friend wrote to ask me, “Will this be upsetting to me as a Jewish woman?” Yes. Or as a cannibal, or a dentist, or a Mongolian herder living on a remote steppe.
Released in 2011, it seems strangely applicable to today.
John Singleton is writing a book about international cinema, to be published by Blue Ear Books.