Thankful for World Cinema- Class Enemy (2013)


For an introduction to Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

Class Enemy (2013)

Class Enemy, which is Slovenia’s official selection for Best Foreign Language film, tells a tale of a high school class that singles out its new German teacher (Played by Igor Samobor) as the party responsible for their classmate’s suicide (Sabina played by Dasa Cupevski). The film picks up right as their favorite teacher, whom Robert (Samobor) is replacing, is going out on maternity leave and follows the back-and-forth struggle between the three main factions (teacher, students and administration) throughout the school year consistently adding layers to the characters, and conflicts.

On the surface this seems like the kind of concept that might run out steam and run into redundancy, fallacies or tedium but through that consistent layering either of single characters, a faction or the central struggle; the film remains riveting throughout. Furthermore, it achieves that level of tension by refusing to turn a judgmental eye on any particular party and refusing to color its personages in either black or white, but, ultimately shades them all in grays. In the end, not to put too fine a point on it, the “mystery” is left a bit gray also.

Class Enemy (2012, Courtesy of Triglav Film)

This feat is even more impressive when you consider the fact that when dealing with subject matters such as teenage suicide, student-teacher relations, or any of the myriad ancillary topics this film addresses it can be easy to be callous. However, this film is written and directed with enough finesse such that it conveys the truths as each individual character sees it without disrespecting opposing opinions. Perhaps the best exchanges with regards to this occur with the school’s headmaster. Robert is called in to see her when the conflicts are still relatively tepid and he is befuddled asking something to the effect of “They were offended by that?” To which the headmaster answers: “Welcome, to the 21st Century, Robert.”

That is perhaps the most perfectly crafted line of the film. It’s something that is true regardless of what your vantage point is. It’s not trying to make things like teen suicide or bullying smaller, but merely addressing another truth. The film is similarly adept at having its characters differentiated and not necessarily always holding politically correct opinions. The characters express said opinions earnestly and due to performance and writing the intent is always clear. In a film structured in part as a generational clash there needs to be such understanding and conflicting perspectives for it to work. Even something as youth-centric as The Breakfast Club had good insights into the few authority figures, the adults, and had them not always agree. “The kids haven’t changed, Vern, you have” the Janitor tells the principal there, and while that may usually be true, perhaps this tale stumbled onto a slightly different angle: with the same impetuousness as always the kids here are lead to say something they never vocalized before.

Class Enemy (2013, Triglav Film)

While this is a drama built on a fulcrum which all other events spring off and feed on persistently it does continue and escalate from there. Characters progress and regress; step forward and back, and come to grips with things at different times especially in light of some developments that come to the fore later on.

Perhaps one of the most interesting choices in this film is use of language. Since the German class is the main battleground it allows cultural norms to be more frequently a talking point. Robert is one of those hardline teachers who will not allow the native tongue to be spoken in his class; this was a method that was more often used as a threat in my education and rarely implemented. This fact makes much of the dialogue in the film German, which, of course, puts more of an onus on the performers, but allows for other affectations like repeated, exaggerated use of the term Nazi, and other perceptions; as well as a focus on the works of Thomas Mann.

As may have been intimated earlier, the fact that this is a film ostensibly about teenage high school rebellion does not minimize the drama, or the feat that this film is. I hope the allusion to The Breakfast Club would allude to that too. However, while this may deal with darker, more modern themes with less of a light at the end of the tunnel, less of an end to that tunnel really; it is a similarly insightful piece on themes essentially omnipresent; allowing it an introspection, gravitas and expiation of adolescent and educator frustrations alike.

Class Enemy (2013, Courtesy of Triglav Film)

Clearly a tale such as this could not hope to work as well as it would like to without great performances throughout the cast. Clearly, first and foremost would be Igor Samobor as Robert. There is a certain enigmatic magnetism to his performance that allows you wonder as to his character’s precise motivations at times, information that is eventually disseminated; and he plays the villainous-type (to those who still remember their studious days and tendencies well) to a tee. Among the students there are also many great turns: Dasa Cupevski’s screentime is short but memorable; Voranc Boh’s Luka is usually the leader and an effective agitator of the youthful rebellion; perhaps most impressive in his rather divided nature is Jan Zupancic in his portrayal of Tadej. Then there is Doroteja Nadrah who fades in and out of prominence as a character, but is no less impressive.

Class Enemy, when all is said and done, is basically everything you want out of a dramatic piece. It tackles difficult dramatic questions and does not shy away from exploration without concrete answers, but instead knows that better films usually take the journey well; exploring and changing their characters along the way, and more importantly, it understands that the best dramas aren’t about victors or where they audience sides, but how much we enjoy watching them engage in battle.


Bela Tarr Retrospective: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)


As has become customary for winners of the Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award at the BAM Awards, I have begun a Bela Tarr retrospective. The introduction and initial short film post can be found here and here.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

So it’s been a little longer than I wanted it to be before I returned to this series and gave my first closer look at a title but here it is.

With Werckmeister Harmonies not only do you have Tarr fully embracing his new aesthetic but you also have him creating the trajectory of his remaining films. What can be found here is the opening salvo in the ongoing dialogue of his cinema. Some of the themes both visual and otherwise start here and you can feel them echoed in later works.

For example, the film begins with a shot of a piece of wood being added to the fire on an oven. Now, as it turns out here this is just the opening frame of a lengthy tracking shot, but the motif of wood-burning ovens, flames through the grate and things of the like reappear, most notably in the Turin Horse.

The opening shot is an intricate and quite a famous one. It is perhaps the most we will hear out of our protagonist. However, interestingly this protagonist is one whom for the most part is just a vessel with through which we can be shown the story, such that it is.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

There are two significant and long speeches in the film and much like the only dialogue of consequence in The Turin Horse, the temptation to disregard it rather than trying to ferret out some semblance of meaning is compelling but erroneous. The first such extended piece of dialogue is right there in this opening tracking shot wherein Janos describes to bar full of inebriates the workings of the solar system. I read of a God Complex in one essay but the way Janos walks around observing the whale, being transfixed by it and assigning it no special significance, save for the wondrous work of God that it is, doesn’t quite mesh. I think the intent is likely to define Janos here for we will see little else throughout that does. He listens and does what he is told most of the time. Whether or not he does that to a fault is debatable, but what this is establishing is that he thinks on a simple matter and sees the wonder of it, much like a child would, and seeks to share his wonder. The barkeep lets him go on only so long before kicking him and everyone else out.

The second dialogue passage of significance is when the title the Werckmeister Harmonies is disseminated. It is a rant on musical theory on how the tuning of instruments and the regimentation of notes and octaves created something far more mechanical and less artful and organic than existed prior. On the surface it has nothing to do with anything else, save for the fact that it is this old man’s, Gyuri Eszter’s, obsession. However, it’s not the explanation that matters, but how he feels about it. He likens it to man tinkering with the work of God and here, yet again, we have a theological reference. Now, God here is being invoked in a more existential and cosmic way, rather than in a dogmatic way. It’s seemingly invoked as a larger ideal rather than a denominational claim, much like the the whale and the so-called prince, a dwarfish shadow-figure whose face is not shown threatens the natural order in the minds of many in the town, are.

As in much of Tarr’s work when he stayed shooting in black-and-white, moved the camera more and created a course the film is about decay. It’s about how we as human beings are always teetering on the edge of devolution and anarchy.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

The sound of church bells in this film, much like in Satantango are ascribed and ominous connotation; similarly to that film a broken clock in a church starts working anew rather mysteriously. Much in the way many of the people, except Janos, interpret the whale in their own way. The allegory of the whale is perhaps the most powerful in Tarr’s filmography because for as large and imposing as it is, as much of a spectacle as it is, it can’t do anything. It does not do anything and neither does the feared Prince who evokes passion and creates followers. However, the people believe they can and do and that’s what causes them to react the way they do. The people want no change, in spite of its constancy, and when something threatens that they lash out.

The order the enraged mob seeks to be restoring is an illusion. It’s as much an illusion as film is, which could be why Tarr in this instance brought in two German actors, the wide-eyed, childlike Lars Rudolph as Janos and the formerly omnipresent Fassbinder vamp Hannah Schygulla; and had them speak their lines in German and then had them dubbed, and not necessarily in a way that syncs perfectly, because something it always off.

Uncle Gyuri Eszter, in his diatribe about the Werckemeister harmonies, states that what the struggle is as follows “the octave versus the note; the natural tune versus the manmade construct; the heavenly versus mundane; human hubris versus divine gifts.” And that’s much of what the struggle in this film is.

There are still mysteries to be unraveled. Many can assume, since we did not see him through much of the assault on the hospital, that Janos was not there. However, that long and significant tracking shot ends on him looking terrified after the violence stops upon the site of the frail old man who no one wants to harm. So one can wonder did he just witness it all, unable to stop it; or was he a party to it. Similarly is the account he reads in the church one he found or one he wrote himself. The film leaves them purposely vague. However, I think it correlates more with both his passivity and his folly that he was merely a witness. What is left unsaid the end that he was inactive in the assault and not the author of what he read.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

When all is said and done he’s the perfect scapegoat. The society back to its so-called sense and must now restore order and the most logical scapegoat is Janos. They, meaning all the citizens, recognize neither God nor Man, so he must leave. The end of the film is uncle Gyuri Eszter going to see the whale. It is left out in the square on display where the madness began passive and immobile as it always has been.

It’s a film that’s really not about what happens, but why it happens and that answer is not nearly so nebulous people have willed it to be. They’ve assigned meanings based on their fears and ignorance and punished the guilty. In almost an eschewing of genre toward the end there is a helicopter, maybe verifying early rumors of military involvement, hovering in the sky behind Janos. It circles him quite bit, but it’s not going to try and barrel him over like the cropduster in North by Nothwest. It’ll just watch him and let him know that he’s targeted. He’s the odd man out because he embraced the whale and got the finger pointed at him and now he must go down the train tracks and out of town.

All that remains is delusion and lies, he’s told once and that’s the way it stays. It’s merely an illustration of that statement is what the film is. The people fear, they know nothing. They do not move on. The Prince is gone, the circus is burnt, the whale lies alone; an abandoned blasphemy and things go on unchanged.

Review- Winter in Wartime

Martijn Lakemeier in Winter in Wartime (Sony Pictures Classics)

If one simply looks at the synopsis for Winter in Wartime then one might not be tremendously struck by the concept but upon seeing the film the one thought that kept occurring to me was “How did this film get passed up when it was submitted for the Oscars?” It just goes to show you that one, there are issues in the selection process and two the films submitted every year are worthy of finding as this film is absolutely outstanding in every facet of its production.

It is a film that tells of a young man Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) who is by chance brought into the resistance in World War II Holland. This does not even begin to convey how fascinating and compelling this tale is and how well it is told. The film starts right away with us seeing a plane crash and very creative confrontation between a British, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), and German soldier. This does not immediately fold itself into the thrust of the tale but does eventually.

What works is that Michiel’s character is established as well is his family life before he starts being drawn in further and further. What’s even better is that events conspire to involve him not just natural childish curiosity. A curiosity that never seems unnatural and leaves you shaking your head. It plays naturally and doesn’t ever seem contrived, which is of paramount importance in this film such that disbelief remains suspended. The matter-of-fact nature by which some others are caught and punished also adds to this.

The story is constantly delivering twists and turns at a naturalistic pace and methodically raises the stakes. It eventually ratchets things up to a become a fantastic tragic tale that never goes over the top and keeps you involved and makes it something you can relate to. As the the plot thickens and becomes more involved so does Lakemeier’s character become further developed and more and more demands are made on him as an actor, which he meets and exceeds. Principally in his cool nervousness at the end and also his frantic fear during a climactic slow-motion sequence. The rare variety of such sequence that actually augments the actor’s performance rather than rendering it comical.

It’s a portrait of the war at home without being in your face and full of histrionics but you still can’t help but feel the impact of watching a child’s world start to crumble about him and for the first time in his life he is compelled to act by a sense of responsibility rather than desire.

The gravitas that the tale carries through a bulk of the tale is beautifully scored by Pino Donaggio. The score combined with the sure-handed direction of Martin Koolhoven help this film leap right off the screen and take you into the tale more effectively than any 3D film could ever hope to.

The film isn’t a one-actor showcase nor is it a one-trick pony. Yorick van Wageningen has a tremendous two-pronged performance as the enigmatic Uncle Ben. Then there’s Melody Klaver whose relationship with Michiel changes as she too gets brought into the plot. Jamie Campbell Bower also is rather impressive as the wounded Brit, typically an English-speaking actor in a foreign language film doesn’t get too much to sink his teeth into but he does and takes advantage of it.

A testament to the wonders of this film is that one of the twists within this tale is rather large, the kind that a lesser film would hang its hat on. Not only does the whole film not hinge on this revelation and how it is handled but it is improved and propelled by it. It leads to a breathtaking climax that is even more artistically rendered than was the previous twist.

Upon walking out of the theatre the only things I was able to say that expressed the impression this film made on me was an internet acronym (OMG) and the very repetitive statement that (“I love, love, love this movie”). The reasons stated above are just some of them. Koolhoven establishes himself as a director to be followed and this film, is the best I’ve seen this year to date.