In the compelling “Class Enemy,” a group of teens blame their demanding new German teacher and his demeaning methods when one of their classmates commits suicide. As a colossal battle of wills unfolds at the high school, debuting Slovenian helmer Rok Bicek demonstrates an impressive control of tension and suspense, making each encounter between class and instructor crackle with the possibility of violence. Further fest action is a given for this convincingly performed, character-and-situation-driven drama, with niche arthouse distribution a possibility in some territories.
The academic year is nearly over for a tightly knit bunch of high school seniors. But the atmosphere in the classroom changes when Nusa (Masa Derganc), their beloved homeroom teacher, goes on maternity leave and is replaced by German authoritarian Robert (Igor Samobor). This cold, intellectual new hire believes in showing his new charges who’s boss; he requires them to stand when he enters the room and believes that he can only establish order when they show respect.
While Nusa showed great sensitivity to the students’ private lives and personalities, Robert displays no such softness. Thus he ignores the feelings of the grieving Luka (Voranc Boh), whose mother recently died, and of shy pianist Sabina (Dasa Cupevski), who is hypersensitive to criticism.
When Robert delivers some scathing remarks to Sabina and she hangs herself shortly afterward without leaving a note, the tragedy sparks a student rebellion against the system in general and Robert in particular.
The credible screenplay by Nejc Gazvoda, Bicek and producer Janez Lapajne stresses the generational divide between the students and the school administration, reflecting a general dissatisfaction within contemporary Slovenian society. Moreover, positioning Robert as a German teacher provides an important subtext: It sets up his characterization as a Nazi by the kids, and his lessons from Thomas Mann, which comment on suicide in a way that not only antagonizes the students but gets them thinking.
As a director, Bicek capitalizes on the differences in energy among the teens (carefully cast and rehearsed non-pros) and the adults (portrayed by professional thesps), to persuasive effect. Per press notes, the already bonded youngsters and Sambor (one of Slovenia’s best-known actors) did not meet until the first day of the shoot, resulting in the type of friction necessary for the story.
The students consist of familiar types, personalized through committed thesping. Among them: diligent grade-grubber Primosz (Dan Mrevlje); smart alec Tadej (Jan Zupancic); and smart, pretty and popular Mojca (Doroteja Nadrah), who, when inspired by Mann’s writings, is able to put the events in perspective so that they resonate for the others. Bicek even inserts pithy commentary on Slovenian social problems through an outsider, Chinese student Chang (Kangjing Qiu), who notes, “You Slovenians. If you’re not killing yourself, you’re killing each other.”
The school’s staff is also recognizably limned, from the clueless social worker (Estera Dvornik) who spouts psychobabble about “the octopus of grief,” to the flirtatious gym teacher (Tjasa Zeleznik) to the wily principal (Natasa Barbara Gracner), who handles both students and parents with the oily suavity of a politician. Even virtually dialogue-less characters support the institutional atmosphere, such as the elderly custodian, whose feelings about having to chisel candle wax from the stairway are expressed with a look.
Shooting in widescreen on an Arri Alexa with a cool color palette, first-time feature lenser Fabio Stoll captures the nuances expressed in a glance, as well as the differences in atmosphere among the classroom, hallways principal’s office and teacher’s lounge. The cutting by Lapajne and Bicek is on-the-nose; music is diegetic, with repetitions of a Chopin piano prelude proving extremely important to the story.