High School Group Dynamics in the Critics' Week

in 70th Venice Film Festival

by Alissa Simon

Curiously, more than one film in the Venice Festival’s Critics’ Week offered a compelling exploration of the group dynamics amongst the members of a high school class. There was the FIPRESCI prize-winner, The Reunion (Atertraffen) from the provocative Swedish writer-director-performer Anna Odell, and then there was Class Enemy (Razredni sovraznik) from Slovenia, directed by Rok Bicek.

In the convincingly performed, character-and-situation-driven drama Class Enemy, a group of teens blames their demanding new German teacher and his demeaning methods when one of their classmates commits suicide. As a colossal battle of wills unfolds at the high school, director Bicek demonstrates an impressive control of tension and suspense, making each encounter between class and instructor crackle with the possibility of violence.

The academic year is nearly over for a tightly knit bunch of high school seniors. But the atmosphere in the classroom changes when Nusa (Masa Derganc), their beloved homeroom teacher, takes maternity leave and is replaced by a new hire, the authoritarian German instructor Robert (Igor Samobor).

The cold, intellectual Robert believes in showing his new charges who is boss. He requires them to stand when he enters the room and believes that he can only create order when they show respect.

While Nusa showed great sensitivity to the students’ private lives and personalities, Robert has no intention of displaying such softness. Thus, he ignores the feelings of the grieving Luka (Voranc Boh), whose mother recently died, and of shy pianist Sabina (Dasa Cupevski), who is hypersensitive to criticism.

When Robert delivers some scathing remarks to Sabina and she hangs herself shortly after without leaving a note, the tragedy sparks a student rebellion against the system in general and Robert in particular. The film is particularly good at showing how the vastly different schoolmates come together to fight the system as personified by Robert, but argue amongst themselves when the system starts to break down. As Bicek notes, “That is a classic pattern of revolutions, which need a common enemy to bring the group together. At the moment when the enemy has been conquered and the goal achieved, the group falls apart.”

The credible screenplay by Nejc Gazvoda, Bicek and producer Janez Lapajne stresses the generational divide between the students and the school administration, making it reflect a general dissatisfaction within contemporary Slovenian society. Moreover, positioning Robert as a German teacher provides an important subtext. It sets up both his characterization as a Nazi by the kids and his lessons from Thomas Mann that comment on suicide in a way that not only antagonizes the students but gets them thinking.

As a director, Bicek capitalizes on the different energy between the teens (carefully cast and rehearsed non-professional actors) and the adults (portrayed by professional performers) to persuasive effect. Bicek also notes that the already-bonded youngsters and Sambor (one of Slovenia’s best-known actors) did not meet until the first day of the shoot, resulting in the type of friction necessary for the story.

The students comprise familiar types, personalized through committed acting. Among them: diligent grade-grubber Primosz (Dan Mrevlje); right-wing Tadej (Jan Zupancic); and smart, pretty and popular Mojca (Doroteja Nadrah) who, when inspired by the writings of Thomas Mann, is able to put the events in perspective so that they resonate for the others. Bicek even inserts pithy commentary on Slovenian social problems through an outsider, Chinese student Chang (Kangjing Qiu), who notes, “You Slovenians, if you’re not killing yourself, you’re killing each other.”

The school’s staff is also recognizably limned, from the clueless social worker (Estera Dvornik), who spouts psychobabble about “the octopus of grief”, to the flirtatious gym teacher (Tjasa Zeleznik) to the wily principal (Natasa Barbara Gracner), who handles both students and parents with the suave oiliness of a politician. Even virtually dialogue-less characters support the institutional atmosphere, such as the elderly custodian whose feelings about having to chisel candle wax from the stairway are expressed with a look.

Shooting in widescreen on an Arri Alexa with a cool color palette, first time feature cameraman Fabio Stoll captures the nuances expressed in a glance, as well as the differences in atmosphere between the classroom, hallways, principal’s office and teacher’s lounge. The editing by Lapajne and Bicek is on the nose. Although very important to the narrative, the music is diegetic only, with repetitions of a Frederic Chopin piano prelude extremely important to the story.

Edited by Yael Shuv