Class Enemy is one of two standout films so far in my BIFF screening selections (Diego Star review coming up later). It was the Slovenian entry for the Foreign Languag Academy Award. I’m surprised that a film like this hasn’t got UK distribution. I can only assume that some kind of institutional inertia exists in UK distribution which prevents films from smaller territories like Slovenia from gaining a high profile. Perhaps the box office records of the two films which Class Enemy most resembles is helpful in thinking this through – Die Welle (The Wave, Germany 2008) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Die Welle was dismissed by leading UK broadsheet critics, seemingly unable to see beyond it as a popular youth picture whereas The Class was warmly embraced as an auterist film by Laurent Cantet and went on to do excellent business as a specialised film. I thought both films succeeded in their explorations of the classroom environment and the interactions of teachers and students. Class Enemy is aesthetically more like Die Welle – presented in CinemaScope with instantly identifiable teenage types. But its tight focus on teaching styles and classroom interactions and its complex narrative also align it towards The Class.
I don’t think that Class Enemy actually moves the action beyond the walls of the school until the closing scene. This insularity actually points towards its universality. Slovenia is in some ways the most affluent, liberal and generally ‘calm’ of the countries formed after the break-up of the Yugoslavian federation – at least that’s how it seems from the outside. In reality I understand that the trauma of the after effects of World War II and in particular the the conflict between quislings and partisans has had a lasting impact. Slovenia is also a country strategically placed at a crossroads between Western, Central and South-Eastern Europe with potential migratory flows and domination by different hegemonic powers throughout history. The class of students placed at the centre of the narrative reflects this diversity with students whose backgrounds suggest different European histories – and with the single East Asian student symbolising the globalised world now open to Slovenes. Given the region’s history it isn’t surprising that the central drama involves German culture and accusations of ‘Nazi behaviour’.
The film’s dramatic conflict is created conventionally by the arrival of an ‘outsider’ who disrupts the equilibrium of the school and this class of 17-18 year-olds in particular. Their ‘liberal’ friendly teacher is about to go on maternity leave and she introduces the new German teacher, Robert Zupan. The new teacher seems to have a very different teaching style – strict and possibly authoritarian. When a tragedy occurs affecting all the students in the class, Zupan is held responsible because of his methods and their impact on students. The class comes together (with at first just one dissenter) in a form of rebellion which gradually escalates. The school authorities are forced to try to find a solution which means facing the parents as well as the students and Robert Zupan.
Class Enemy is the first feature film by 29 year-old Rok Biček. The excellent Press Pack includes an interview in which he discusses his methods. His two main inspirations seem to be Michael Haneke and the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, the former prompted the coldness and surgical precision with which the events are analysed and the latter the basic long take style. Given the single central location and the focus on one class and three or for teachers, casting was very important. Biček says he took his lead from the Palestinian-Israeli pairing of Scandar Copti and Zaron Shani and their approach to Ajami (2009). He decided to mainly use professional actors for the teachers and found non-professionals for the students. The latter then built their own performances around their reactions to the constructed performances of the teachers. The students were kept away from the ‘actor’ teachers until their scenes so that they responded as naturally as possible.
The whole story was based on a set of incidents during Biček’s own school career. His skill has been in developing these into a narrative structure that allows a complex drama to emerge. This is a film which at the same time gives ‘concrete’ explanations /resolutions to certain narrative strands but still leaves open the possibility of a different reading. There are no ‘right’ answers as such. For instance, the headteacher does eventually ‘solve’ the problem but the film can still be seen as an indictment of modern school administration which often seems better at handling PR than in finding the best ways to offer real education. Similarly the German teacher (brilliantly played by the leading Slovenian theatre actor Igor Samobor) does indeed act in a rigid and authoritarian manner – but his actions can be read as rational and supportive and ultimately of benefit to students. The students themselves behave as any group of individuals placed under stress and towards the end of the narrative Biček also brings in the parents who also present ambiguous responses to the situation.
The brilliance of Biček’s direction lies in first the ‘surgical precision’ with which he presents the drama and then in the careful balancing of the possible readings of the actions. I can see an argument for showing this film to all teachers training for work in secondary school classrooms (assuming that we have any training left in the bizarre English education system). The work that trainee teachers might do in attempting to read the film would be highly beneficial. Perhaps I’m biased as both an ex-teacher and ex-teacher trainer, but I’d give the Bradford European feature prize to this film. There is still one screening to go in the competition so I’ll hold my fire for the moment.