By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz November 6, 2013 at 9:58PM
Class Enemy, Slovenia's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : None Yet. International Sales Agent: Slovenian Film Center
Directionless teens guided by a devoted teacher have been the subject of endless films. The adolescent rebels always seem to start off defiant and burdened by their own issues at home, but then a dutiful docent fueled by his vocation to help the youth teaches them lessons about life. Their future suddenly looks more promising because of that one positive influence. At first sight that’s what Rok Biček’s Class Enemy appears to be, but it actually is something much less romantic. What this Slovenian high school drama is about turns out to be something much darker and daring.
Rigorous Robert Zupan (Igor Samobor) is put in charge of a senior class midway through the school year after their regular teacher goes on pregnancy leave. Besides being the primary professor for the class, Mr. Zupan teaches German. His methods are strict and cold; he sees school as a privilege not a right, which earns him the students’ instant repulsion. Simultaneously, Luka (Voranc Boh), a young man in his class, has just returned to school after his mother has died. He is unstable and quick to react to anything he assumes is insincere. His fragile emotional state proves to be a problem for Zupan and the rest of the class.
Firm and unflinching, the new teacher’s attitude doesn’t sit well with the group of kids accustomed to being overprotected and whose defiant behavior is often tolerated. But Zupan stands his ground, and though severe, he is equally fair. He is particularly interested in Sabina (Dasa Cupevski), a quiet girl who has a talent for playing the piano, but who is adrift and doesn’t know what path to pursue in life. With brutal honesty Zupan challenges her to be all she can be, oblivious to what would come next. When the school finds out Sabina committed suicide soon after his conversation with the teacher, her classmates take it upon themselves to avenge a death they think was product of his provocations.
Irremediably, Sabina becomes a symbol for their own personal vendettas against the system or more precisely against the adults in positions of authority. Their frustration and determination to find an explanation mistakenly leads them to put the blame on Zupan, accusing him of being a Nazi, and they sabotage his class in increasingly disturbing ways. Samobot is brilliant in his role as the unbreakable teacher. Never giving into the horrendous accusations he carries on with his class whether they want to learn or not. He has no preferences or loyalties to any of the students, and, even if not shown explicitly, he empathizes with them and feels for their loss.
Eventually the upset students, as they see their attacks have no visible effect on him, decide to use the school’s radio both to vilify him and to tell their version of the truth. They walk out of class whenever he makes any attempt to settle things, and they even make masks out of Sabina’s picture, which makes for an unsettling sight that encompasses the communal distress. Class Enemy is an insightful and compelling film that doesn’t have the well-intentioned hopefulness like that of Laurent Cantet’s The Class, or countless other films with a similar premise. In this his powerful feature debut Biček exposes his vision of modern Slovenian society compressed into one classroom with underlying commentary about the lack of tolerance.
Clearly, the director makes a point of the student’s prejudiced perception of Zupan, but he doesn’t absolve the other teachers who seem content with doing the bare minimum or the parents who, when called into a meeting, prove that their offspring are clear reflections of their own ideologies, or even the school's principal who is more concerned with how the media will perceive her actions after Sabina's suicide than with enforcing the rules. In a sense, as harsh and uncompromising as his convictions are, Zupan is the only one that sees the entire picture without blinding sentimentalism. Some of the teens do learn a lesson from their battling schemes, others are narcissistic enough not to want to learn, but as they go on their end-of-the-year trip to Greece surely one phrase from the school year will follow them, “Learning means not knowing, wanting means not being able to”.