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rochefort [Celluloid 09.23.12] Germany thriller drama

"Kriegerin" ("Combat Girls"), a new German film by director David Wnendt, is the latest to examine the modern-day disenfranchised youth of the Neo Nazi movement, and easily ranks among the most powerful films I've seen all year. Like its predecessors "Romper Stomper", "American History X", and "This Is England", it focuses on the ways in which immersion into the Neo Nazi ideology can seem inevitable for some and redemption, if it comes at all, is hard-won.

Marisa (Alina Levshin, who is phenomenal) is a girl in her twenties who lives with her mother, works at her Mom's supermarket, and spends her free time hanging with her skinhead boyfriend Sandro (Gerdy Zint) and his skinhead pals as they bully immigrants on trains and party with pro-Hitler conspiracy freaks. Svenja (Jella Hasse), a teenager from a great home who is just waking up to the joys of rebellion, slinks her way into Marisa's circle of friends simply to land a new boyfriend, and Marisa makes it clear from the beginning she's not welcome. Their paths intersect more and more after Marisa, in a moment of uncontrolled rage, does an intentional hit and run on foreigner Rasul (Sayed Ahmad) and his brother. When Rasul, bloodied and now alone, finds her at her supermarket job and threatens to turn her in, Marisa agrees to hide Rasul from the deportation authorities, knowing full well that if her own crowd find him they'll most likely kill him, and his constant presence makes it impossible for her to hide the guilt she feels for doing him wrong. As she begins to question her beliefs more and more, Svenja conversely gets deeper and deeper into the lifestyle.

It's by no means surprising that films like this one tend to be tales of redemption, otherwise the premise can't lead to much more than either bitter nihilism or hateful propaganda. But to have any real worth a redemption story has to ring true, and "Combat Girls" earns its place among the best of its kind by feeling absolutely and completely real throughout. There are glimpses of hope, but they often seem in danger of being overwhelmed by a tide of misplaced nationalism and angry youthful fervor. There are no scenes of ironic fake-heroism such as the basketball scene in "History", and no moments that verge on pulp like the brutal, extended chase or melodramatic love triangle of "Romper". Marisa is a difficult, often loathsome character, and Levshin sinks her teeth in deep. This is her show, from beginning to end; director Wnendt knows this full well, and makes sure she gets what she needs. Marisa's transformation is rarely an entertaining one, but damn if it isn't convincing, and Levshin sells every second of her gut-wrenching journey from self-absorbed and hateful to remorseful and even noble.

Many of us have been exposed to one group or another whose radical views have caused us direct or indirect damage, and we've arguably all been so frustrated by life at some point or another that we can seem to see the wisdom of pursuing a radical course in order to make the world less personally threatening. It's one thing to grow past the knee-jerk need to distill everything down to what does or doesn't need to be violently dealt with. It's another entirely to stop and try to empathize with the those of us who seem to have lost any capacity for tolerance. As much as we like to think that people are growing out of the hates of the past, it only takes a quick look at the daily news to realize how much more growth we really need. "Combat Girls" is one of those reminders that doesn't take any of the easy movie routes, and is often hard to watch. But when it's over you'll most likely have a lot to think about.

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