For reasons no one understands, a teenage girl, Sabina (Dasa Cupeveski), takes her own life. Her classmates exploit the tragedy to rebel against what their new German teacher, Robert Zupan, calls the “mathematical” or inflexible system of their school: the hierarchy of teachers, the pressure to perform well on tests, the demands of college preparation. They choose the strict Mr. Zupan, who favors an outmoded teaching method strong in rigor and light on sensitivity, as their persona non grata, blaming him for Sabina’s death. Small acts of rebellion escalate. And then the students’ united front suffers as internecine bickering and the threat of suspension divide them along lines of individual character, weakening the resolve of some and causing others to stick to their guns more stubbornly than before. The tension mounts slowly and thus believably in director Rok Bicek’s debut feature, Class Enemy. The film screened during the First Time Festival this past weekend, and, for the strength of its performances and the intelligence of its script, it is our choice for the festival’s Bulleit Frontier Film Award.
Although, at first glance, the students in Class Enemy appear to align with character tropes familiar to fans of John Hughes (the stoner, the goth, the pretty one, the nerd) their personalities emerge over the course of the film as complex variations on type. Bicek’s decision to populate his ensemble cast with non-actors is partly to thank for Enemy's sense of verisimilitude. The director visited high schools across Slovenia in search of current students who matched the characters he had written – characters roughly based on real students with whom Bicek attended school in the nineties, real teens who took advantage of a classmate’s suicide to rebel against the faculty.
The risky decision to cast only three professional actors (teachers all, including Slovenia’s highly sought-after Igor Samobar as Zupan) in a film that also features a first-time DP, first-time gaffer, first-time set designer, and first-time costume designer could have devolved into an exercise in mediocrity, or, given the subject matter, sophomoric melodrama. Instead, what the director produced – thanks to a few key choices, including the eschewal of line readings in favor of asking the students to discuss their families and backgrounds, and keeping the students away from Samobar when they weren’t filming, in order to prevent the forming of attachments – is a highly realistic look at classroom interactions. Alliances take shape and break. One minute you’re in the group, the next, you’re out; or, one minute you’re gamely accusing your teacher of Nazism over the school’s intercom, the next, you’re claiming your classmate forced you. No one is the hero, no one is wholly damnable.
The film thrives on this sense of sustained ambivalence. Sympathies with the teenagers ebb and flow as their motivations chart an increasingly treacherous course and the mostly implacable Mr. Zupan responds to provocation in ways both understandable and uncomfortable. The man places a premium on candor to the detriment of empathy. He is the bull in the china shop of sentiment (and would surely shatter Ron Burgundy’s “glass case of emotion” with one lift of his brow).
Allusions to Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Kroger add depth to the narrative without turning the production into a cerebral exercise in human analysis. It is a well dramatized exercise in human analysis, its classroom-as-societal-microcosm approach hitting cues both timely and ageless: The effects of WWII on the modern European outlook have their place alongside the correct expression of grief, for instance. The film’s sleek look, tones of blue and white, belie the small production value, and the lack of a score lends dramatic weight to those few scenes in which a work by Mozart plays a prominent role.
The timeline gets a little hairy as one episode of rebellion follows another with no clear indication of how much time has elapsed between the two, but in all, Class Enemy (which was Slovenia’s official entry to this year’s Academy Awards) proves first-time feature filmmaker Rok Bicek is one to continue watching.