Thankful for World Cinema- Class Enemy (2013)

Introduction

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.

10/10

Advertisements

Once Upon a Time in the 80s: The Breakfast Club (Part 14 of 17)

Warning: This article features in depth plot analysis. If you have not seen this film you are urged not to read on. Spoiler alert administered.

John Hughes was a big name in the 1980s, but more so as a writer/producer than as a director. He started off as a writer with the National Lampoon’s crew. While it’s true he did work in a formulaic manner, and did practically invent the template for the teen film of the 80s; he did strike gold from time to time. The teen film of the 80s was so badly adapted to the 90s it spawned a spoof film called Not Another Teen Movie at the turn of the century. Hughes became a big player as a writer/producer but rarely directed his own scripts. He directed this film but his other films ran the gamut quality-wise from Weird Science, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off and Curly Sue to Vacation, The Great Outdoors and Home Alone. Hughes’ best directorial efforts were this film and Trains, Planes and Automobiles; regardless of all that this is his seminal work.

We start with a quote by David Bowie which is much better in the written word than it is in the song itself: “…And these children/ That you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/ Are immune to your consultations,/They are quite aware/ Of what they’re going through…” and the image shatters so we begin…

The Breakfast Club is in essence two things: it is first a character study and secondly, a timeless manifesto of teen angst. The setting is Saturday detention, our five protagonists are all here for reasons of their own but they are thrown together in the school library for eight hours and have to co-exist though they are very different. This is one of Hughes’ great situations and has been repeated on shows like Dawson’s Creek. Hughes is a master of creating a great situation for comedy. The premise of Sixteen Candles is that everyone has forgotten the main character’s birthday and it was a plot of one episode on practically every sitcom in the 1980s. This film is almost a play it is so dialogue-driven, however, if you turned it into a play I don’t think it’d work not that that’s going to stop anyone from trying [I’ve since learned at a screening with a Q & A hosted by Kevin Smith that this film was initially written as a stage play].

The Breakfast Club (1985, Universal)

“Anyone who moans that cinema in the 80s amounted to the death of dialogue and the triumph of action Jackson, should take a look at this movie. It’s all talk.”

The characters are immediately defined as we see them dropped off at school. Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) is told by his mother to use his time to study, he protests saying he isn’t supposed to study and she says he has to find a way; he’s the brain. Andrew (Emilio Estevez) is being reamed out by his father that he won’t get a scholarship if he gets caught again that and his letter jacket tell us; he’s the jock. Claire (Molly Ringwold) is being told that cutting school doesn’t make her a defective; she’s the popular girl or the princess. Allison (Ally Sheedy) is dropped off without a word when she goes to say goodbye the car speeds off and almost runs over Bender (Judd Nelson) so we have the last two, the basket case and the criminal. These labels are very important because that’s what we all perceive them as in the beginning and how they perceive each other and we learn about these characters and they bond with each other. While they’re in detention they’re each supposed to write a 1,000 word essay but they choose to do something else instead.


Why they ended up in detention ends up being like the “Rosebud” of this film. Except in this film it is but a gimmick. In their discussions, we find out more and more about these characters and what pushed them there. We find out about their home lives and for all of them there is something that makes it unbearable for them. In a very memorable scene Bender re-enacts a typical night in his house and depicts an argument between his parents. When Andrew doesn’t believe him he lifts his sleeve and says “See this? It’s about the size of a cigar. See this is what you get in my house when you spill paint in the garage.” Andrew relates how his father was always browbeating him to be number one and how he’s been made to hate weakness. Claire’s affections are a prize her parents keep fighting over since their divorce. Brian relates how he nearly killed himself, albeit with a flair gun, because he got a B in shop and his parents demand academic excellence from him “I can’t have it, and my parents can’t have it,” he says. At the end, we find out Allison’s problem is that her parents outright ignore her and that’s why she’s been contemplating running away. Their discussion concludes with the question “My God are we all going to turn into our parents” and Allison “It’s inevitable at a certain age your heart dies,” which leads us to the antagonist.


The Breakfast Club (1985, Universal)

The villain in this film is Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason). He is the establishment. And when he gets Bender alone he ranks him out like nobody’s business, and you just want to punch him right in the face, and he even gives Bender the chance to but Bender’s not used to this brutal honesty and is scared to death. I’d even say his tough guy image is an act even though he does have a hellish home life. Vernon also talks to the janitor and complains that “Every year these kids are getting more and more arrogant,” and then the Janitor speaks the truth saying “Come on, Vern, the kids haven’t changed you have. What do you think you’d think of yourself at their age?” and that ends the conversation. The principal is the embodiment of everything these kids hate and fear becoming. And he also gives a very good and funny performance. The teen angst of this film is apparent. When this film becomes a manifesto is when at the end they decide to ask Brian to write their essay for them and he agrees.


While there is a montage at the beginning of all that is high school. This is also a striking visual sequence. We see Vernon holding the paper, Claire and Bender being romantic, Andrew and Allison holding hands and Brian getting into his car. And we hear Brian doing a voice-over narration:

“Dear Mr. Vernon: We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy for making us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.”


The Breakfast Club (1985, Universal)

And as the narration ends we see Bender walking across the football field and he pumps his fist in the air as “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds plays the frame freezes. It’s the best, and one of the few acceptable, freeze frame endings I’ve ever seen; it’s perfect.


Some of the vernacular in this film is very 80s for example I don’t think I’ll ever know what “Neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie” is but the themes and storyline that run through this film are timeless such that I only came to see this film about three years ago (as of this writing). It’s a great piece of adolescent rebellion and a great comedy undoubtedly Hughes’ best work.

Works Cited: p. 33 Brat Pack: Confidential Andrew Pulver and Steven Paul Davies. BT Batsford: London, 2000.
The Breakfast Club. Dir. John Hughes. 1985. featuring Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwold, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall, Paul Gleason. Universal Pictures.

In Memoriam- John Hughes

John Hughes

Often times an era in which one excelled, and the fact that an artist was wildly prolific within a time period greatly influences our opinion of him. Simply calling John Hughes the “Bard of Teen Angst” is not praise enough for not all of his work was a teen movie or a brat pack film.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles was not only an uproariously funny film, which was John Candy and Steve Martin’s only onscreen meeting, but a heartwarming film in the end. The revelation that Candy’s character was homeless became a 1980s template for sitcom episodes as did the plots of The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles.

Hughes then put Candy in The Great Outdoors in a similar brand of comedy but fewer social ramifications.

This was the man who penned the Vacation films to greatness and those were hardly angst-ridden just downright funny.

Hughes also showed his more dramatic side with titles like Curly Sue – a film whose perception in my mind is likely skewed due to my sister’s incessant watching of it. The heartfelt, sincere, coyly funny, at times dramatic She’s Having a Baby.

He was a star launcher from propelling Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom, and also John Candy, Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald and Macaulay Culkin.

Even his greatest hits: The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off show more diversity than Hughes is typically given credit for having.

The screenwriter is a largely anonymous figure in the Hollywood game and in the American consciousness, even more so when said writer chooses to leave Hollywood behind. Even with one of the longest string of hits in the history of film there was a fade, yet even while fading Hughes put his name on big scripts.

In the 90s Hughes was hired to write a series of remakes: 101 Dalmatians, Flubber, Miracle on 34th Street and Dennis the Menace.

He also wrote Beethoven which was good in its first installment and he has continued the series under his pen name scripting it or lending his characters.

The decade of course began with Home Alone, which has been tarnished in hindsight due to many things unrelated to the film. It is a classic comedy and at the end of its theatrical run was the 4th highest grossing film of all-time and the #1 comedy. It is still in the mid-20s of the all-time rank 19 years later, with no inflated ticket prices there to boost it. Hughes went on to pen the next two in the series.

Home Alone was inspired by one short scene in Uncle Buck where Macaulay interviewed Buck’s girlfriend through the mail slot. Which is another tremendous example of his artistry: one, because such a short exchange spun off into another film and that he found inspiration in that. It’s also great because the two films complement each other.

The remainder of his credits he had attributed to him where written under his pen name Edmond Dantès, he did have few indie attempts like a TV series called New Port South and a hard to find film called Reach the Rock.

Which were followed by story credits such as Maid in Manhattan– nothing special but as good as a Cinderella update can be. Lastly, Drillbit Taylor which reportedly was a tale optioned in the 1980s and untouched ’til last year.

So a lot of that body of work had little to do with angst and a lot to do with fantasy and laughter and things that would get us through angst. The label likely has to do with his magnum opus, the masterpiece whose first draft was written over the course of one weekend: The Breakfast Club.

This is the kind of film that strikes a big time nerve not just for teenagers but for those who were teenagers, I myself was in college when I first saw it and likely connected with it more because of it. It examines its characters with surgical precision, and they all understand each other more they are by no means fixed or better for the experience just changed and more aware. They stand united against a common enemy – their parents and the principal. 

Part of what made Hughes great was that he had an unwavering view of the world best exemplified by a quote of his: “I don’t think of kids as a lower form of the human species.”

Hughes practiced what he preached and will not be forgotten by any of us who are young or merely young at heart. Whether we just sought escape or seek to create characters as honest and true as he did we will not forget his words.