Lessons on Life and Death

in 26th Panorama of European Cinema

by Aleksander Huser

Rok Bicek’s impressive debut feature tells the story of a Slovenian high school class who get a new German Professor when their teacher goes on maternity leave. Believing that the class lacks the necessary respect for authority, the substitute teacher approaches his temporary assignment with an ‘old school’ sense of discipline and obedience.

After a shy and introvert female student suddenly commits suicide, the new teacher soon becomes a scapegoat for the students, who blames him for her death. This is partly because of some critical words that he said to the girl, and partly based on rumors spreading about other meetings between the two of them. The professor, on his side, insists that life has to go on. Therefore, he continues his classes more or less as usual, still demanding German to be the only language spoken in the classroom. Furthermore, he addresses the theme of suicide through the works of Thomas Mann, thereby integrating the incident as part of the students’ education.

Not willing to accept this, and provoked by the teacher’s lack of sensitivity towards their tragic loss of a class mate, the students start a revolt. Gradually, both the parents and the school administration are forced to take part in this conflict.

Initially, it is easy to view the old fashioned and strict teacher as some kind of monster, focused as he is on keeping up educational procedures and maintaining discipline, rather than offering the students any kind of empathy or understanding. However, the film soon reveals to be far more complex than that, displaying shifting audience sympathies through a clever storyline where none of the characters are either good or bad.

Throughout most of the film, its form is highly realistic, with both a style and subject matter reminiscent of Laurent Cantet’s ”The Class” (Entre les murs). Also, like the French Palme d’Or winner, it combines amateur actors with professionals in what has turned out to be a very well-acted film with a high level of authenticity.

Furthermore, ”Class Enemy” addresses bigger issues than just those concerning the educational system. In its essence, the film is more about learning important life lessons than about teaching – although it raises some thought provoking questions on both how to learn and how to teach these lessons. Thus, the film uses its institutional setting as a dramaturgical engine, to discuss themes of both a moral and an existential nature. ”Class Enemy” is about guilt and responsibility, and about life in the midst of death.

”Class Enemy” is 28-year-old Rok Bicek’s first feature film, realized two years after he finished his film studies. The screenplay was written by the director in collaboration with fellow Slovenian filmmaker Nejc Gazvoda, inspired by real events that happened while Bicek was in high school. The film addresses a topic of tragic actuality in Slovenia, with the country’s suicide rate apparently being in the top three in the world.

Despite its director’s young age, ”Class Enemy” is a surprisingly mature film, dealing with complex subject matters with subtlety as well as clarity, and executed with a skillful mastery of storytelling and cinematic language. Even though it deals with generational gaps and youthful revolt, the film itself remains calm and controlled – exemplified by all the scenes of the film being shot indoors, within the school’s four walls (with one notable exception).

Whereas debut features often include too many ideas and suggestions for its own good, ”Class Enemy” is impressively restrained and disciplined, all the way to its beautiful and somewhat poetic end.

Earlier this year, ”Class Enemy” was selected for the International Critic’s Week Section at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Film. The film also won seven prizes at this year’s Slovenian Awards, including Best Film. Before ”Class Enemy” was awarded the FIPRESCI International Film Critics Prize at the Panorama of European Cinema in Athens in November, it also won the same prize at this year’s Bratislava International Film Festival.

Edited by Steven Yates