Review: Slovenian School Drama CLASS ENEMY Presents Collective Crime And Individual Punishment
The times seem to be ripe for a new generation to overthrow the old one and usurp the ruling sceptre. The New Waves are splashing on all sides, yet still some go unnoticed. Such is the case of Slovenia. Lately, some interesting works spawned in this obscure corner of Europe have been spearheaded by a child-prodigy, Rok Biček, who at the age of 28 has already forged an award-festooned feature touring the globe.
Class Enemy is not a brat-beget product, even though there is some inalienable punk quality in it. Class Enemy is the textbook example of a small film making a big (and legitimate) gesture. Biček´s theme is rather common, a darker spin on coming-of-age and identity crisis. The basic set-up does not much differ from the 2008 Palme d´Or winner, Laurent Cantet´s Class, and apparently bears certain autobiographical outlines. Yet it still stands out in terms of style, message and content.
In an anonymous and ordinary Slovenian class, a popular German teacher says goodbye before departing to maternity leave. A new, distanced, and rather strict teacher comes as a substitute. The teaching rigour of the newcomer does not go well with the pupils' slacker ideals and expectations. He has a clear vision of his life whereas they don't; moreover, they don't care. Bicek strikes an important chord, almost a symptomatic one. Class Enemy focuses on the generation overwhelmed with opportunities yet too torpid and impotent to seize any of them. They let themselves be lulled to sleep by the comfort of hopelessness while a stream of personal frustration and anxiety keeps piling up.
The ideal opportunity for juvenile psychohygiene arrives with the occasion of one unfortunate schoolmate's suicide. The tragedy triggers a class' long-range crusade against an evident target. The last person to ever talk to the dear deceased girl was Mr. German teacher. He stoicly resists the attacks, several of them executed with striking invention, and keeps preserving his initial conviction. The pubescent rebellion endures most of the time whilst characters are being moulded and other impulses are starting to emerge from underneath. The scenario almost follows the notorious Bible quote, "Why do you see the splinter in your brother's eye but not notice the log in your own eye," but basically it's the 'take your anger and frustration out on somebody you can easily bully' plot fused with temporary collective obssesional behaviour.
Bicek uses a common technique of shot and reverse shot to build up the suspense in the class. The camera stands on the imaginary border clearly segregating pupils from the teacher. The tension mounts thanks to excellent performance by Igor Samobor and his unceremonious defence and intellectual deflection of verbal attacks. The camera occasionally cruises the corridors of school to provide breathing space for characters and the audience as well for a minute of silent contemplation and side-picking.
The writers (Bicek together with Nejc Gazvoda and Janez Lapajne) left some space for minor subplots mostly dealing with tiny portraits of individual characters, but it's just scratching the surface of individual psychologisation in favour of presenting collectively shared features and actions.
Rok Bicek is doubtless an emerging talent; he knows how to drag viewers inside the maelstrom of blame and pity as well as he knows how to draw a portrait of contemporary Slovenian society. The individual psychologisation is pushed back to provide necessary space for social critique. The geopolitical context and recent past of Slovenia lend enough subjects to deal with similar to other Eastern block countries.
It has become a cliché that every national cinema reflecting the life in the country must automatically pull out the proverbial mirror, although Class Enemy eschews cheap moralising. The youth rebels against the system -- which naturally is interchangeable for the god, the fate, or whatever entity we can blame in order to shake off responsibility for our lives -- and the teacher is supposed to be a part of it. However, he stands in between the class and the system as an unorthodox Messiah figure.
The dynamics of the students, a combination of pro and non-pro actors, consumes most of the screen time yet the spotlight has been stolen by Igor Samobor as the teacher. Not only does his acting performance draw attention, but also the character. Although there is a certain minimalism employed in the film's general aesthetics, the teacher is depicted with just the features he needs for the sake of the plot and ambiguous interpretation. The wisely-written character behaves well under pressure of the class and his colleagues, withstanding aloofly the attacks from all sides, whilst preserving strong teaching rigour, ethics, and cold rationalism.
In addition, the teacher serves as sort of a memento of a school as an institution of indoctrination and one of the hands forming the future character of a person. Initially, the German teacher seems to be cruel and cold, but the contrary is the case. Bicek subtly hints about the importance of a good mentor, an absolute necessity that is sorely rare in the current, shamelessly underpaid school (work) environment.
Despite minor flaws, Class Enemy is a perfectly executed film with unexpected depth for a rookie filmmaker and reminds us that it is about the right time to once again revisit the Balkan cinema.