Judge Gordon Sullivan felt dirty watching this...but not like that.
Once you're in, you can never get out.
Though I won't pretend to speak from personal experience, as an outsider to most forms of racial bigotry, it seems that one of the saddest things about it is how easy it is to perpetuate. Long after World War II or the elimination of Jim Crow laws, it seems frighteningly easy for people to fall into the same old traps of hating people who are different. Combat Girls demonstrates this handily, showing us the inside of German's contemporary Neo-Nazi movement through the eyes of two young women. Though it probably won't tell most viewers anything new about racism, the film does offer some startlingly wonderful performances from its leads.
Marisa is a 20-year-old woman completely immersed in Germany's Neo-Nazi subculture. When the younger Svenja joins the group because she's fallen for a fellow skinhead the pair initially clash. Eventually, though, they develop a tenuous friendship and we watch as they navigate the perils of contemporary racism.
Films like Combat Girls are an actor's dream. The most popular films to expose Neo-Nazis seem to attract the best actors, from Edward Norton in American History X to Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper. Even Havoc, which doesn't share the Neo-Nazi flavor of Combat Girls, but does provide the story of two young women exploring a dangerous subculture, boasted a newly adult performance from Anne Hathaway. Combat Girls continues in this tradition. Alina Levshin and Jella Haasa both display remarkable powers as actresses. Both are capable of engaging in the more shocking bits of Neo-Nazi culture (including brutal violence) while still keeping their characters at least somewhat sympathetic. It's a fine line to walk: too noxious and we won't want to watch; too sympathetic and they won't seem believable.
The actresses are helped in this process by a clever script. Unlike other, similar films, Combat Girls offer some non-stereotypical reasons for the girls' involvement. Instead of the near-universal effects of poverty and geography, Combat Girls offers us an intimate portrait of Marisa's slow poisoning by her bigoted (and possibly abusive) grandfather. We also see how Svenja's adolescent rebellion takes a dark turn when she falls for the wrong guy. Combine that with a no-holds-barred (and handheld) exploration of the lives of these skinheads and the plot manages to avoid a lot of the trite pitfalls of these kinds of films.
This DVD of Combat Girls is pretty solid. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer does a fine job with the gritty, handheld photography. Detail is generally strong, and the muted color scheme comes through perfectly. Black levels aren't quite as deep as I'd like, but they're pretty consistent. Compression artifacts aren't a problem, either. The 5.1 surround track is also pretty good. Dialogue is clean and clear from the center, while the surrounds get a workout during more immersive scenes, like the Neo-Nazi gatherings. Extras start with an interview with Alina Levshin that runs 12 minutes discussing her experiences working on the film. There are also trailers, both for Combat Girls and other Artsploitation titles. Finally, an eight-page booklet is included in the case which features and essay by critic Travis Crawford. The cover art is also reversible, allowing fans a choice of how their case will appear.
Combat Girls is a well-acted look at the contemporary Neo-Nazi group, but I'm struggling to figure out why most people would want to watch it. Yes, it's well-constructed, but I'm not sure it adds anything new to the discussion, except perhaps demonstrating that the Neo-Nazi movement is still in full swing (at least in places). Otherwise, the film is a depressing look at a horrifying subculture. The film does refuse to flinch at the brutality, but that doesn't tell viewers much; it's not surprising that skinheads are violent, drunken hooligans who almost certainly have too much time on their hands. Although the origins of Marisa and Svenja's involvement with the movement are far from trite, the overall plot developments are unsurprising and ultimately feel like a bit of a letdown.
Watching Combat Girls made me feel like I needed an intellectual shower. Usually that's not a bad thing—it's okay to confront the nastier elements in society sometimes—but I like to get something for my troubles. In the case of Combat Girls, I don't feel like I learned anything about the Neo-Nazi movement or contemporary racism that I didn't already know. The brilliant performances from the female leads almost completely make up for this fact, but viewers can't put on Combat Girls expecting a light evening's entertainment. A rental is probably the best bet with this flick, and this DVD makes that easy to recommend.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Artsploitation Films
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