Tagged: Slovenian Cinema

BIFF 2014 #14: Class Enemy (Razredni sovraznik, Slovenia 2013)

The new teacher Robert Zupan finds himself isolated in the school

The new teacher Robert Zupan finds himself isolated in the school

Portrait Without BleedClass 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’.

Some of the students. Luka (second left) is the instigator of the rebellion. (Triglav Films)

Some of the students. Luka (second left) is the instigator of the rebellion. (Triglav Films)

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.

BIFF 2013 #6: A Night Too Young (Prílis mladá noc, Czech Rep 2012)

The two boys, unaware of the events to follow

The two boys, unaware of the events to follow

BIFF19logoOne of the six entries in the European Features competition at BIFF, A Night Too Young is certainly distinctive but it will face problems because of its short length and possibly its subject matter. 65 minutes used to be the generally accepted point at which a film became a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘short’ – at least in France. At that length it presents a commercial distributor and exhibitor with the task of building a programme around it. In a festival like this it can be boosted with a longer ‘short’ alongside (as it was here).

The subject matter brings together adult partygoers and two 12 year-old boys. The boys are on the cusp of puberty as their discussion of sex in the opening scenes reveals. It’s the afternoon of December 31st in a small Czech town and they are playing on their sleds in the snow when they meet two men and a young woman. She asks the boys to buy some vodka for her from the store and to bring it to her apartment. They innocently do so and find themselves in a party situation with booze and dope and some serious tension in the air.

The director Olmo Omerzu is a Slovenian who has recently graduated from FAMU, the film school in Prague. It’s unusual that a graduation film gets to this length and even more that it gets into a big festival like Berlin and that’s down to some extra funding. Omerzu says that his influences include the Czech New Wave and that he cast the two boys partly because of the way that they seemed at times to resemble the two older men. The boy who plays Baluška (Vojtěch Machuta) has the most extraordinary face, sometimes impassive but at other times seemingly that of a much older man. The script is quite sparse in terms of dialogue and the whole narrative has the feel of a Pinter play. Our attention is drawn to the boys and we wonder what they are making of the events surrounding them. Omerzu has a background in “drawing comics for a Slovenian magazine” and there is something fantastical about how he visualises the mundane setting as the night draws in. New Year’s  Eve is when we might expect a stranger knocking at the door and being invited in to join the party. It isn’t always clear what is actually happening and what is being imagined – and who by. The narrative isn’t quite linear – though I have difficulty remembering what happened and in what order.

I think I drew two main conclusions from watching A Night Too Young. First, this is what the industry often terms a ‘calling card’. In its present form it is unlikely to escape the festival circuit, but its strange attractions are likely to help Olmo Omerzu get funding for his next projects and I think we will see more of him in the future. (In another interview he suggests that this film has achieved distribution in Germany, Slovenia and the Czech Republic). Secondly, I was reminded of what a rich film culture there is in Central Europe and how we don’t see enough of it in the UK.

BIFF 2012 #12 Bread and Circuses (Kruha in iger, Slovenia 2011)

The quizmaster and Mrs Novak tête-à-tête

This was the last of the six entries in Bradford’s ‘New European Features’ competition. I don’t expect it to figure highly in the judge’s considerations, but that does not mean that the film isn’t of interest. It’s a mainstream popular film – a form of broad social comedy with many familiar and universal elements. As such it’s exactly the kind of film I want to see.

I’m not sure if this is a significant trend but, like Adalbert’s Dream, the film focuses on the period just before the end of communist rule in the region. It’s 1987, the year before Slovenia began its move towards complete autonomy and away from the Yugoslavian federation. The Novak family, who live in the small town of Velenje, discover that they have been selected to appear on a TV quiz show in the capital Ljubljana. Mother and teenage daughter are keen but father and older student son are not. Nevertheless, the family travel to the capital, getting involved in a silly incident with two policemen (because they are in fancy dress for a carnival edition of the quiz) and then with the TV celebrity who comperes the programme. In some ways the conventional quiz show is transformed into a version of a daytime ‘talkshow’ as the contestants squabble amongst themselves.

Communist Yugoslavia was part of the non-aligned movement in the 1970s and Slovenia was possibly the most market-orientated part of the federation, so there is little mention of the socialist system directly in the film. More important is the perceived metropolitan bias of the TV professionals in the capital towards the working-class contestants from the sticks. There is also a clear generational conflict between the father who has celebrated 30 years working in a factory making TV sets and a son who wants to break away from what he sees as his father’s self-imposed sense of inferiority.

I enjoyed the film for what it was. The ‘official website‘ suggests that the film is “a comedy with a scent of nostalgia about socialistic Yugoslavia’s last breaths looking forward into brighter future days than they appear to be at the moment”.There is nothing surprising about the film and in a way it looks like a film that might have been made anywhere in Central Europe at the time when it is set – i.e. in the late 1980s.

Slovenia has a small population (2.0 million) so producing a perfectly acceptable mainstream film is an achievement in itself. Director Klemen Dvornik has considerable experience in TV but this was his first cinematic feature. The only other Slovenian film that I’ve seen was much more ambitious but arguably less successful. Having said that I’m not sure that Bread and Circuses would find an audience in the UK.

Kolkata IFF screening 3: Landscape No. 2 (Slovenia 2009)

I don’t know much about Slovenia, apart from its geographical position and its history as part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and then Yugoslavia after 1945. I imagined that Slovenian culture negotiates between Catholic Croatia and Orthodox Serbia.

Landscape No. 2 is the official Slovenian nomination for the 2010 Foreign Language Oscars but I think it may challenge the assumptions of Academy voters. Writer-director Vinko Möderndorfer has produced a (very) black comedy which purports to comment on the need to escape from the terrible memories of the past – according to his statement on the official website.

The narrative begins with a burglary by a pair of amateurs who are otherwise engaged in repairing domestic appliances. The older of the two, ‘Polde’, organises the job in order to steal a painting known as ‘Landscape No. 2’ from an elderly ex-Yugoslavian Army General. He knows that the General will pay a ransom to get it back, not because of its intrinsic artistic value but because it actually depicts the place where Nazi collaborators were executed by communist partisans in 1945. Unfortunately, the younger burglar Sergej (Marko Mandic) steals some money and a document that he finds in the safe. The document is proof of the executions and could considerably embarrass the General who is implicated in the executions. When he discovers it is missing, he calls in a ‘fixer’ from the pre-1990 Yugoslavian intelligence forces to retrieve it.

In the subsequent narrative developments there are four brutal murders and several explicit sex scenes. The comic moments come from the ‘jack the lad’ actions of Sergej, who leaves his fiancée in their flat whilst he cavorts with an attractive young middle-class woman, and the completely ‘over-the-top’ antics of the ‘fixer’. The mixture of sex, violence and comic fecklessness was too much for some of the festival audience and I wasn’t convinced by the balance of elements in the mix. The fixer is a comic grotesque and the performance by Slobodan Custic seemed to me to be just too much. The character seems to be psychopathic and this is troubling given the ideological work of the film. Those murdered include two pregnant women, a gay man and an older man whose crime is not so great. Whilst the director’s statement implies a wish to ‘move forward’ and free the current generation from the weight of historical traumas, it is, as one IMDB poster outlines, possible to read the film as an indictment of the communist partisans who were in many ways the heroes of resistance to the Nazis. Of course, we shouldn’t condone executions without trial but in 1945 collaborators were not ‘innocent’ by any means. I fear that the sex and violence in this generally well made film will entertain audiences without prompting a serious reflection on the need to come to terms with the past.

The trailer (with subtitles) is available on IMDB.