"The Class": Good versus Evil By France Hatron

in 23rd Warsaw International Film Festival

by France Hatron

The Class (Klass) is a second feature film, made by Estonian director Ilmar Raag (born in 1968, studies in France and the USA). The black-and-white movie, based upon a true story, is structured in seven parts, that is to say seven days, with great import placed upon flashbacks of young heroes playing ball at school.

A group of teenagers is playing basketball at an anonymous Estonian secondary school. Among them, you find the taciturn Joosep, the “whipping boy”; then you have Kaspar, who lives with his grandmother, trying to defend Joosep more and more as the week goes by. When she asks him why he defends Joosep, he answers: “It’s a question of honor.” Finally there is Paul, the best student in the class, sitting just behind Joosep.

One day as class starts Paul steals Joosep’s homework, but Joosep daren’t denounce him. When the headmistress asks who guilty Paul answers “Kaspar” is. And, of course, why would she imagine that her best student would need to crib from Joosep? This is the turning point of the story. From this moment, the students know that Kaspar can be the one accused of all faults. At this point, the manipulation and spiral of violence begin. The narrative, the script and the acting gain in intensity. Not only boys are manipulated but teachers as well when they are told that Joosep is different from the rest of the class because he wears expensive clothes with logos — a poor social pretext for exclusion.

Joosep never says anything to escape this infernal spiral, sinking deeper and deeper into anguish and suffering. Unable to confide in anybody, he drowns his sorrows in music. The other teenagers hate him so much that we get the feeling that he and also Kaspar are going to be killed — particularly when Kaspar is forced to rape Joosep on the beach, goaded and threatened into the act by several of his terrifying classmates.

But Joosep and Kaspar survive their fights, and finally they decide to kill everybody. We realize their choice when they arrive at school with their guns and a submachine pistol. This scene evokes Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, though it’s much more emotional. Those two boys are not acting in a state of retribution but a very sad and exhausted one. Defenseless against evil, they can’t imagine any positive outcome to their lives. We can see the disappointment rising up on Joosep’s face during the week. At the beginning, his expression is just indifferent, and then it becomes more frightened, finally it collapses in agony.

The film’s elegant black-and-white aesthetic perfectly shows his state evolution. As her mother tries to understand him, his father, a rigid military man, wants his son to be physically and psychologically stronger and behaves more like Joosep’s classmates than like a loving dad. He can also use violence against him.

Director Ilmar Raag explains that those two boys have no choice. If they opt for a radical solution, it is because their innocence is difficult to prove in a world defined by falsehoods and outward appearances. In a way, Joosep and Kaspar are courageous, but Kaspar seems even more so when he refuses to commit suicide — a decision that reads as a virtuous choice. As Kaspar and Joosep, Vallo Kirs and Pärt Uusberg give wonderfully realistic performances.

Much more than a sociological probe into adolescent bullying, this strong and touching story — if a very violent one — acts as a witness to the worst sides of the human soul. When evil starts having an edge on good, the battle is nearly lost.