Ilmar Raag: The Class (Klass, 2007)
reviewed by Karlo Funk © 2010
Deromanticizing School Violence
It is easy to launch long but rather superficial debates on socially sensitive subjects. However, it has rarely happened in Estonia that one single film has been talked about so much. The Class, directed by Ilmar Raag, was the cause of long talks with the audiences after festival screenings, as well as of various round table talks, in which psychologists and the director participated, but also of all kinds of discussion groups at schools. The director had, undoubtedly, a special role in all this: the former head of the public TV channel and an always calm and composed participant in public debates, Ilmar Raag, had made a film that extended cases of school violence to the limits of believability and did not offer simple solutions. Raag’s two roles as a director with a provocative approach and a refined mild-mannered public figure suddenly did not fit in with each other any more.
The Class strives to examine the birth of an extreme and desperate act of revenge—a school shooting—through the prism of psychology. Cases of school shootings are often reflected in the media as unexpectedly triggered, unnatural tragedies. Different signs and explanations are found when examining these cases, but in order to reach out to the deeper motivation of the shooter, the media consumer must assume quite an unpleasant position and penetrate the consciousness of a fanatic. School shooters have often been characterized by their misanthropy that consciously opposes social values and by their feelings of superiority over the mass. Explaining the incomprehensible and discussing it in the media should make people understand such acts. The original shock can be overcome and a kind of a new consensus can be reached by bringing the initially incomprehensible act in line with social values. Such a consensus is expressed, for example, in the conviction that the reasons of such acts can be clarified, and eliminated by changing the educational system.
Gus van Sant’s Elephant depicts a school shooting as unexplained divine anger, the breaking of a superego into everyday life. The bullies’ sins are remembered and during short minutes, the punishment is meted out by angels clad in black. The more psychological perspective of The Class is revealed in the way the film follows the escalation of bullying.
Kaspar, a new boy in the class, finds himself unexpectedly defending Joosep, who is bullied by everybody. The leader of bullies, Anders, takes this as an undermining of his authority and, through threats and persuasion, tries to stop Kaspar from supporting Joosep. The moment comes when Kaspar cannot step back any more, as a direct conflict has emerged between him and Anders, and his honor is at stake. At the same time, the bullies invent even more refined methods that end with a scene of forced sex between the two victims on the beach. This drives the two victims to cross the line: they do not see their opponents as human beings any more, thus preparing the ground for the shooting in the school cafeteria.
The film depicts the class as a closed community, where adults and teachers have no special roles. Similarly to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the darkest features of human nature are manifest and the spineless mass submits to the leader. In this case, the “deserted island” has been created by the heroes themselves. To a certain extent, turning to adults can be seen as the characters’ justified choice. But when personal honor gets involved, Kaspar’s acts are motivated by the need of proving his moral values before his opponent, and help from outside cannot be enlisted without weakening this moral standpoint.
The Class was produced as a film for young adults. Especially in the first half of the film there is enough space beside the plot to introduce the milieu, the characters’ backgrounds and attitudes, and the dominating relationships and communication codes. Work behind the scenes with young actors took more than half a year and all of them participated in the shaping of their roles and dialogues. This authentic energy can clearly be seen on the screen, for instance, in the emotionally relaxed party scene that realistically reflects the life of young people and makes the film more credible for the audience. Changes in the tempo and the use of clip montage guaranteed remarkable audience numbers for this film on a very serious subject and made to a modest budget. In the recent history of Estonian film, such a combination of box office success and serious reception is very rare.
Lively reactions to the film in Estonia and in abroad invite the question why such a subject should be so important for the public. The film is introduced by a remark that it is based on stories taken from real life. Several cases of school bullying have been exposed to the public, but no school shootings have ever occurred in Estonia. Against the background of school shootings in Finland and Germany, the film surely poses the question whether such events could occur in Estonia. This remark has probably also caused misunderstandings of foreign audiences, who often perceive the film as a true story. The filmmakers, however, bore in mind the numerous cases of school bullying that could have resulted in such a fictitious finale.
Director Ilmar Raag has said that his personal reason for making this film was the bullying that he had witnessed during his own school years, without intervening at that time. Sensitivity towards the violence of the stronger and the need for coping with it has, actually, been encoded into all young men of the director’s generation. Dedovshshina, a system where older soldiers made younger ones serve them, or simply victimize the weaker, was an inseparable part of the compulsory two-year military service in the Soviet Army. The roles changed in the course of time and at the end of their service, the same boys “had the right” to humiliate others. Dedovshshina emerged in the 1970, when young men with a criminal record were also conscripted to the army.
Each young man who was drafted right after finishing secondary school had to mentally prepare himself for coping with this system and, at the same time, for remaining true to his Self. As groups formed according to the region of the men’s origin, those from smaller nations always were in a weaker position than the others. Beatings and torturing by fellow soldiers could be quite a routine and, in extreme cases, could ultimately lead to actions similar to those depicted in The Class. In the late 1980s, a Lithuanian recruit shot and killed more than twenty of his fellow soldiers.
The Class brings this principal question—what would you do if?—into the present time, but it is presented in a key that has a deeper effect on Western culture. In one scene, a literature teacher analyses Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and sums up romanticism as follows: “romanticism was an era when people took unusual decisions and thereby became great.” This sentence directly connects to the final scenes of the film, as well as the choices of young and disappointed people. The layer of romanticism in the conventional mind offers as many justifications and explanations for violence as Nietzsche does.
Tobin Siebers examines the philosophical roots of violence in his article "Philosophy and its other—violence: A survey of philosophical repression from Plato to Girard" (Siebers 1995). He claims that violence became part of metaphysics through Hegelian dialectics. Men, as communal beings, discover their essence only after having gained a certain freedom from their nature as communal beings. An individual reaches the Being-for-Itself by denying his communal nature in an act of violence against other human beings. This train of thought suggests that violence is not an exception, but a universal act, an ontological necessity in the process of becoming an individual.
The story of The Class is, to a certain extent, also a romantic story where the characters attempt to change the world with their acts just as a romantic hero would do. Romanticism offers attractive opportunities for a young man, who is seeking answers to cope with the rules of society and testing his limits. For the audience, the moral space in interpreting these acts is already wider and more ambivalent. The language of the film and the structure of the scenes create a realist and deromanticized treatment of violent relationships and offer a key for interpreting the plot.
In contrast to the Hegelian approach, the film does not consider violence as an ontological necessity. An opposition to The Class and other similar films is, actually, created by the knowledge that violent acts have been ideologically encoded into our culture and we cannot offer external, objective explanations. As much as the public would like to blame computer games, films or the ineffectiveness of the educational system, the ideological reasoning for violence is also present in the phenomena, which we call our culture and traditions. Like the Pied Piper of Hameln, The Class leads us, step by step, where we do not want to go, nearer to an understanding of a desperate act. The tension between the destructive passion represented by the notion of honor and rationality is the engine that keeps in motion both the film’s viewing and debates.
Translated by Marika Liivamägi
Karlo Funk, Estonian Film Foundation
Siebers, T. (1995) "Philosophyand its other—violence: A survey of philosophical repression from Plato to Girard" Anthropoetics, 1.1 (December).
Klass, Estonia, 2007
Color, 97 min.
Director: Ilmar Raag
Script: Ilmar Raag
Music: Timo Steiner, Paul Oja and Martin “Eskimo” Kallasvee
Director of Photography: Kristjan-Jaak Nuudi
Production Designer: Eva-Maria Gramakovski
Editing: Tambet Tasuja
Cast: Lauri Pedaja, Vallo Kirs, Pärt Uusberg, Paula Solvak, Margus Prangel
Producer: Riina Sildos
Production: Amrion Production
Ilmar Raag: The Class (Klass, 2007)
reviewed by Karlo Funk © 2010