Hell of a School

in 20th Europa Cinema International Film Festival

by Klaus Eder

High School films have come into fashion. Hollywood uses the milieu of adolescents mostly for romantic stories and silly comedies, while European directors tend to consider boarding schools as objects for studying the mechanism of oppression, see the example of Volker Schlondorff’s “Young Torless” (1968) (not to mention Jean Vigo’s “Zero for Conduct”, 1933). Usually, there’s a ‘culprit’: a domineering and physically strong young man, coming from a well situated family, who gains pleasure from humiliating others, weak ones of course who don’t dare to fight back. And there’s a ‘victim’: a weak and suffering character, coming from lower class circumstances, sometimes Jewish, always a sort of outsider. In good films, the attitude and conduct of the other students is well observed too. In Mikael Hafström’s film, there are some frightening moments when two of the students-in-power beat a victim almost to death, and the twenty or thirty students watching the scene neither protest nor interfere but cheer on the aggressors. It’s a fine study and example of fellow traveling and political opportunism.

“Evil” is based on a book by the Swedish author Jan Guillou who had experienced an education in a boarding school of the ‘50s. It is said that it’s a popular book in Scandinavian countries, that helped the commercial release of Mikael Hafstrom’s film (his second) which had opened in Swedish theaters a few days after its European premiere at Viareggio’s EuropaCinema Festival.

A young man, Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson who won the best actor’s award in Viareggio, and who gives indeed an excellent performance), is expelled from his Stockholm school for brutally punching his schoolmates. Later on we understand that his aggressiveness results from a problematic and conflict-ridden relationship with his father who regularly, as a sort of rite and without any reason, beats him up after lunch at home. This is maybe the weakest point of the film: the father is shown as a demoniac caricature without any credibility; the mother is portrayed as the cliché of a mother. Mikael Hafström didn’t have the time nor the interest to deepen these scenes and to extend them to a real motivation for the behavior and character of the son. He’s much better in designing a physical oppressive atmosphere, later at the boarding school, than in building up the psychological lines of his story.

Young Erik Ponti arrives at the boarding school in Stjarnsberg and is immediately confronted with a strong hierarchical world. Surprisingly, the hierarchy and inner order is not invented nor controlled by the teachers but by the students themselves, and it turns out that their rules are much more strict and authoritarian and cruel than the rules the teachers might have introduced. The teachers stay in the background and don’t intervene. The rules of the game are clear: the older students have the say and the younger ones have to obey, and who does not, gets beaten and humiliated. Here, Mikael Hafström’s direction is convincingly dense. He manages to create a worrying atmosphere of fear and fanaticism and terror, using the Kafkaesque architecture of the boarding school and setting a lot of scenes at night. Here as well, the script gains a considerable diversity and depth. Two additional motifs arrive on the scene. First, Erik Ponti is a good swimmer, wins the school championship and is from now on unimpeachable and inviolable by his opponents — who begin to direct their hate and revenge to Erik’s friend and to the girl from the kitchen with whom he had started a sort of love relation. And second — Erik is not really weak, physically he is even stronger than the others, only he does not use his force (except once). This adds another level to the film: the inner fight of Erik against himself, the effort to control his emotions and not to fight back, just not to be expelled from school again. This is an interesting motif, even if it leads to a slight idealization of the main hero.

At the end, Erik Ponti manages to overcome all obstacles and takes his degree. He returns to Stockholm and visits his schoolmate who had earlier left school: the ‘intellectual’, who loved music and books and hated violence. Mikael Hafstrom shows him in the closing scenes well dressed, in a car with a chauffeur, starting his career in his father’s company — a future businessman. Life starts after school. Mikael Hafström just showed a prelude to life — a prelude however which portrays school as hell and avoids all romantic and nostalgic retrospection.