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.
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.
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.
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.