by Matt Smith
Since the 1980s German cinema has grown more comfortable with confronting the country’s darkest hour, moving from oblique references and powerful allegory in films such as Die Brücke (The Bridge, 1959) and Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us, 1946) through virtually the entire filmographies of German New Wave powerhouses Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff, and into fully fleshed out combat films (Stalingrad, 1998) and historical biopics of the Third Reich’s final days in which Hitler and his entire staff is depicted in realistic detail (Der Untergang/Downfall, 2004). Along the same lines of interest in the very German concept of vergangenheitsbewältigung (dealing with/coming to terms with the past) and the threads of direct confrontation with the modern implications of that legacy comes the new film Kriegerin (Combat Girls, 2011)
Kriegerin is a difficult, exhausting and thoroughly energetic film about a pair of girls caught up in Eastern Germany’s burgeoning neo-Nazi movement. The film is a personal experience, and largely avoids the national and international implications of its highly topical issue, yet through the experience of these two girls, it nonetheless serves as a potent commentary on the dangers of racially-motivated violence and how underprivileged youth become involved in a world that seems welcoming at first, but which will turn on you as soon as you are seen as an “Other.”
Kriegerin begins with a young girl running along a beach, motivated by her grandfather, who calls her his “combat girl.” We later find out he is an unrepentant former Nazi who has indoctrinated his granddaughter into the white power movement. This girl, Marisa (Alina Levshin), is next seen with her friends harassing people on the Bahn, culminating in the savage beating of a Vietnamese boy which is recorded and later uploaded on the Internet. In the next scene, her boyfriend Sandro (Gerdy Zint), the group’s leader, is arrested and goes to jail, presumably for said video’s content.
Left in the world of white supremacy without her boyfriend, the shadows of doubt about her belief system start to creep in. After a day at the beach turns her to a bloody hate crime with two Afghani brothers, Marisa finds herself remorseful, and unable to be anchored by her allegiance to a movement in which her only real link is in jail and unable to provide any sort of guidance.
The second girl, Svenja (Jella Haase), is tracked from her rebellious youth as a smoker who must hide the habit from her overbearing father to her formation of an ultra-right-wing political consciousness after being accepted by Markus, one of the older boys in the group who becomes her boyfriend. She is the mirror of Marisa, a disaffected lower-middle-class youth growing up in the depressed East German economy. Her background, including her father’s strict rules and mother’s lack of input in her raising (she is okay with Svenja’s smoking, for example, but never voices this to her husband), is fairly typical of teenagers who get caught up in hate groups. The group itself is even mocked when she sits down for tea with Markus’ father, who remarks that he “doesn’t understand” his son’s political beliefs because he’s “still a Marxist.”
In very real-world terms, that remark gets to the very heart of East Germany’s current neo-Nazi problem. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain as good Communists, Germans were taught that they were never responsible for the horrors of World War II, mostly because they were Communists and because Communism was the natural enemy of National Socialism. Since they were never required to undergo a process of comprehension and self-reflection in the same way as their Western counterparts, the newly reunited East Germans who found themselves suddenly less economically viable than Germans from the West were easy targets for an ideology which always blames an “Other” for the problems of a group of people.
Much of the film is spent on Marisa’s journey to an understanding of her worldview as totally illogical. She befriends Rasul (Sayed Ahmad), the younger brother of the two Afghani boys she attacks earlier in the film, and eventually helps him get out of the country to join his uncle in Sweden. Toward the end of the film when Rasul is attacked by Sandro, just out of jail, Marisa breaks away from the group entirely, beating Sandro with a baseball bat and fleeing town with Rasul and Svenja in tow.
The circle seems to be ongoing, because Svenja has betrayed Marisa, and is ultimately responsible for Marisa’s death at the hands of Sandro on the very beach where she used to train with her grandfather. The film ends with a variation on the opening voice-over, in which we are told that “Democracy is the best thing that ever happened to Germany.” As the camera pulls away from Marisa’s body and pans up toward the horizon on the ocean, we see Svenja lie down next to Marisa and curl up next to her. She seems to understand the world she has been a part of in much the same way Marisa came to understand it, but only time will tell if she does anything about it.
Kriegerin is perhaps unremarkable in its handling of narrative–it pretty much tells the same story as American History X, right down to the newly-indoctrinated youth realizing too late that she needs to wake up–but its kinetic energy, powerful characterizations, and brutally fascinating use of real hate-group punk music (I’ll never get the horrible chorus “Reloaded, reloaded, Holocaust reloaded” out of my nightmares) more than make up for the shortcomings of its story. Alina Levshin deserves some attention here for her portrayal of Marisa, and hopefully she will land more roles that have a better chance of seeing a release here in the U.S. She is unafraid to go where the material takes her, which can also be said for Kriegerin. It is a dark, unrelenting experience. It is also powerful and moving that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
4 out of 5 stars