"The Class": High School War in Estonia By Laurence Boyce
The tragedy of high school massacres have often been seen as an American one, with the majority of the films dealing with the subject (Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine immediately springs to mind) being of US origin. But The Class (Klass) takes an Eastern European perspective on the problems of peer pressure, intense bullying and uncontrolled violence that permeates modern schools and finds that there is a universal problem that many will have to face the consequences in the near future.
The Estonian film centers Joosep, a 16-year-old-boy, who is continually tormented by the rest of his class. Through a set of unfortunate circumstances he is joined by fellow pupil Kaspar who takes it upon himself to defend the honor of the gangly and socially awkward Joosep. The pair soon finds themselves fighting a war of attrition with the rest of their classmates — headed by the mildly sociopathic Anders — as they cajole, beat and wear down the duo. After a particularly shocking act the duo reacts in the only way that they feel they can.
Shot in a raw and urgent style, the film is intent of putting us right into the mind set of our Joosep and Kaspar. And it succeeds as we feel every bit of verbal abuse, flinch at every kick and find ourselves angrily wanting revenge for the injustices wrought upon the unfairly maligned pair. Director Ilmar Raag is careful to only give us any background to the stories of Joosep and Kaspar with other characters remaining ciphers whose actions are seemingly only motivated by hate. But rather than being a fault with the film, it adds to our sympathy towards the bullied ‘heroes’ and — by the time everything comes to a devastating conclusion — we are forced to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions about our personal motivations and desires for some sort of revenge. And, while shocking, the final scenes are absolutely necessary in making us understand the consequences of our actions.
Whilst the film offers no easy answers, it’s clear to see that the film chiefly blames the complete inability of the adults to deal with the situation effectively for many of the problems. Indeed, the film is sometimes reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies as strong adults are absent — the teachers are weak, the parents unable to empathize and deal with their children — leaving youngsters to draw up their own moral codes and deal with its consequences. All the performances are extremely strong with lead actors Vallo Kirs and Pärt Uusberg given dark and intense portrayals of people pushed to the edge whilst the rest of the classmates become an almost homogenous body with Anders as it’s particularly unpleasant head.
Whilst already popular in its native Estonia (and there is already a sequel to the film in the works), the prospects for the film look mixed. Whilst it’s an important story that needs to be told, the general grim aura that permeates the film may put off audiences who feel that they need some lightness. A shame, as The Class will go down as an incredibly important and potent examination of modern youth culture, an intelligent treatise on the psychology of growing up and a shocking indictment on a society that seems to care very little for the people who are meant to be our future.