While we could wish it had a less punny title, “Class Enemy,” the debut feature film from Slovenian shorts filmmaker Rok Bicek is in almost every other way exemplary. Unashamedly cerebral, the film’s cool intelligence shows most in its control and formal rigor that encourage the audience—whose sympathies are expertly maneuvered to lie first on one side, then on the other, and then possibly nowhere at all—to read the story on levels above and beyond what is shown on screen. So while the film itself is extremely contained, almost to the point of claustrophobia, its scope feels large, epic almost, as we are provoked to think about what it means if we substitute the characters for what they might perhaps represent. And while it occasionally flirts with a kind of psychodramatic horror, Haneke-style, mostly it’s a master class in narrative restraint, that still somehow grips your attention like a progressively tightening vice. But perhaps its greatest achievement is in how the film’s own detached moral ambivalence is preserved right to the end, meaning the judgements are left to us. It is not a blackhearted film; its heart, if it has one, is made of cold steel.
On her last day, indulgent, popular and heavily pregnant schoolteacher Nusa (Masa Derganc) introduces her class of teenagers to the substitute who’ll be covering her maternity leave. Dour, unsmiling and dressed with almost monk-like asceticism, Robert (Igor Samobar, commandingly chilly in a terrific performance) is Nusa’s polar opposite and has very precise, rigid ideas on how his classes will be conducted: with due deference for “rituals,” like standing when the teacher enters, which are, he claims, what separates man from animal. The kids, who seem largely good-natured if a little undisciplined, take an instant dislike to him, especially Luka (Voranc Boh), who has only recently returned to school, and to the support of his girlfriend Mojca (Doroteja Nadrah), following the death of his mother. When one of their number, Sabina, commits suicide not long after she left a private interview with the new teacher, in tears, their dislike hardens and blackens and, unable to healthily process their grief and guilt, they begin a campaign against him, alleging everything from paedophilia to Nazism (Robert also teaches German).
In some ways, their pursuit of him reminded us Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” though differently shaded because we cannot, as in that film, fully side with Robert even if we know his innocence of these accusations. Such is his moral ambiguity. Basically, we find ourselves reluctant to take his part because we don’t like him—there is something twistedly arrogant about his refusal to admit the possibility of doing things any other way. But another thing both films share is a sense of the lie of the inherent innocence and goodness of children (though, obviously, in “The Hunt” it is a much younger child). These teenagers seem, at first glance, mercurial and self absorbed, yes, but fundamentally “a nice class” as Nusa describes them. It is only after Sabina dies that we start to see their other, darker-hued colors; their cruelty, and their bully tactics, first brought to bear on the unyielding immovable object that is their teacher, and then on each other as one or another of them peels away from the core group, tantamount, in their eyes, to a betrayal. And it’s a betrayal not just of the group (especially its de facto leader Luka), but of what the group has decided is the only way to memorialize Sabina. Suddenly anyone who is not with them no longer cares about her, and the idea that they may be grieving in a different way cannot be entertained. They co-opt Sabina’s death for their own agenda, and it becomes a multi-fronted power struggle, student vs. teacher; student vs. student; student vs. school system, and a summary lesson in the evil of groupthink and herd mentality.
Bicek makes some very canny choices even at script stage that make the film feel as resonant as it does. Aside from one epilogue scene, the entire movie takes place in the school, mostly the classroom, but the corridors, teachers lounge, toilets and radio booth also figure. But we know very little of of the specificity of the students' lives outside the school, and even when we meet their parents at a parent-teacher meeting called in the wake of some insubordinate incidents, it is separate from their children. This keeps the focus on the students as a group rather than individuals, and makes us notice how that group fractures and coalesces like an entity in its own right. It takes on a life of its own. And the few details we do get about the students individually are quietly crucial in their own ways: Luka’s dead mother could feel like a contrivance but instead it comes across as one of those weird coincidences that give real life its messy, unformatted feel.
Bicek himself is only 28, but the film betrays neither his youth nor his neophyte status as a feature director—this sort of film can only possibly work if there is a total mastery of tone, and that relies on a confidence and control that few newcomers can summon. But Bicek has arrived, fully formed, with “Class Enemy,” negotiating the kind of pitfalls that should by rights derail a first-timer, like non-professional actors, and teenagers at that (they all turn in excellent performances and perfectly communicate the offhand cruelty that can evolve within a peer group.) There are occasional small slips: twice Bicek shifts abruptly into a slightly magicky mood where, as opposed to the subtly jittery handheld camerawork elsewhere, we see the dead girl dreamily weaving her way, unseen, through her classmates, which feels a little atypically manipulative. And the ferocity with which they turn even on their old favorite teacher Nusa feels too abrupt an about-face to be totally believable. But that these hiccups register at all just goes to show how tightly coiled and smooth the rest of the film is. Basically turning the “inspirational teacher” narrative on its head and using a classroom setting to dissect life philosophies and political ideologies alike, Bicek has delivered a film of rare smarts that doesn’t deign to toy with your emotions or make a play for easy sympathy on any count. To the point that it could be alienating if it weren’t for the thin, powerful current of intelligence that crackles throughout and leaves your brain buzzing afterwards. [B+]