Friday, 20 January 2012

Kriegerin (Combat Girls), David Wnendt, Germany 2011

Kriegerin, the first feature length film of Konrad-Wolf Film school graduate David Wnendt, is about a young woman who's an active member of Germany's neo-Nazi movement.

As such, Wnendt's film is very timely for the murders on nine immigrants and a police woman by a neo-Nazi cell are still dominating the news across Germany. As more and more facts about the murderous trio are emerging, both the police and homeland security as well as Germany's secret service have come under fire for their failure to track this cell down earlier. Unbelievably, this group, which called itself National Socialist Underground, went undetected for more than ten years, successfully escaping the radar screen of every official institution set up by the German government in order to protect its citizens - all of them. Needless to say, this threw up a lot of questions as it once more challenged this country's handling of its past and its fascist remnants.

To be sure, a casual visitor to Germany is not very likely to come across any neo-Nazis - they're too small in numbers, largely operating in Germany's thinly populated and economically deprived east. Similarly, unlike in other European countries, the extreme right is not represented in the German parliament. But this is precisely why many German politicians shrugged the neo-Nazi movement off as marginal and never imagined this problem to be as dramatic as it turned out to be. This misjudgement by Germany's politicians turned out to be fatal. For all although 10, 000 neo-Nazis may seem like a - relatively - small number in relation to a population of 82 million, they're of course still 10, 000 too many. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Germany's homeland security is believed to have turned a blind eye, if not to the actual murders but to the time when this neo-Nazi group was yet in its infancy. The point is, if official institutions such as the police or homeland security had been more alert the murders could probably have been prevented - so some believe. However, as the investigation is still ongoing, it remains to be seen to what extent the police, homeland security and the secret service are, in fact, to blame.

Poster for the US release of Kriegerin

So much for the background and debate surrounding the release of Kriegerin. Little did David Wnendt know, of course, when setting out to make a film about women in Germany's neo-Nazi movement, that its release would come on the heels of the revelation regarding the murders of this so-called National Socialist Underground. Had Wnendt known, I'm sure he would have made a different film. Don't get me wrong - Kriegerin is an excellent film with a topic that's long overdue as it's been more or less fully absent from German mainstream cinema. Wnendt deserves credit for the fact alone that he addresses a topic which is as unpopular in Germany as it sits uneasy with the German public who'd like nothing more than to sweep the neo-Nazi issue along with the shadow of its Nazi past - still looming large - under the carpet. But not because they're in denial about it, but rather out of a desire for normality, for being able to pretend that Germany was a country like any other. This may explain why so few German film makers have tackled this issue over the past two decades - even though the German media was full of stories regarding the rising neo-Nazi movement particularly in the east. When some years back, the British film director Shame Maedows, made a film about the neo-Nazi movement as it was in the early 1980s in the UK (This Is England, Shane Meadows, UK 2006), I remember thinking that it would stand Germany's film makers in good stead to follow Meadows' example and come up with something similar.

But no such luck.

Alina Levshin, who (brilliantly!) plays the lead in Kriegerin is a German actress of Ukranian descent. Considering that an estimated 25% of Germany's population are of non-German descent, actors and film workers with an immigrant background are under-represented in the German media, film included.

Wnendt's film, as commendable as it is, does not offer any solutions, nor are his attempts at explaining why so many, especially in Germany's east, seek refuge in neo-Nazi ideology conclusive. Those he suggests are insufficient inasmuch as Marisa (Alina Levshin), the main character of Kriegerin, is drawn into the neo-Nazi maelstrom for lack of any viable alternative and because of her grandfather who, it is suggested, was a Nazi and passed his poisonous thoughts on to his granddaughter. However, it is my conviction that the day-to-day reality is at least as much to blame since, albeit subtle, racism has long found its way into the mainstream. Just consider the popularity Thilo Sarrazin's book has enjoyed in Germany upon its release, subsequently alienating Germany's immigrant communities by also provoking outcries from the left-wing media. Furthermore, look at the - relative - absence of news anchors with an immigrant background from German television, or the increasingly tiresome debate in the German - as well as international - media whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear a headscarf, and so on. All this, I would argue, is used by neo-Nazis as a justification for their thinking, their acts, believing, as they do, that they, finally, do exactly what the public at large would want to do but hasn't got the guts to. No, Kriegerin ain't the adequate response to the ever more horrific revelations that are emerging by and by of the neo-Nazi cell. But as the extent of the neo-Nazi movement was unknown even to David Wnendt, who allegedly did quite a bit of research prior to writing the script, that also could not have been his intention.

That leaves me hoping, that Germany's film makers will rise to the occasion, wake up to their responsibility - they are, after all, largely using government funding for their films! - and not only make films that tackle this issue in their future films but also ensure that film workers and actors with an immigrant background will receive more opportunities to make their voices heard and, most of all, a much larger presence in German films.