Salvation through violence
In an Estonian high school, a loner student, Joosep, is picked on by his fellow class mates. One boy, Kaspar, decides to stand up against the pack and protect him, setting in motion a series of events that will have all students caught in a downward spiral of persistent harassment.
I love Brussels and her multicultural identity. It’s the kind of city where you can go to a bar to watch a solo gig of an Italian singer-songwriter (whom you just happen to have met a week prior in another bar, which resulted in an on-the-spot, spontaneous live jam session with six other musicians) while at the same time getting introduced to a music producer from Nashville, Tennessee and hitting it off on the same page, chatting it up about the Brussels music scene, only to run into an Estonian couple moments later during the gig’s break and get engaged in a conversation about Estonian cinema. Up until that point, I had not seen any Estonian film beyond the works of Sulev Keedus. But that fact alone got the convo going, and the Estonian boyfriend sent me home with the recommendation to check out the films of Ilmar Raag. More specifically, to start with a film of his called ‘Klass’. Getting a real-life, in-person rec out of the blue like that, to me, is simply priceless compared to just reading about stuff on the internet. I love it when that happens. So, he scribbled the name on a beverage coaster and the next day I did my homework.
When it comes to the themes and general feel of the film, ‘Klass’ hangs somewhere between Gus Van Sant‘s ‘Elephant’ and Lukas Moodysson‘s ‘Fucking Amal’. But don’t expect ‘Klass’ to be a nice film. Far from, even. It’s what ‘Elephant’ could have been, but never was. In the end, ‘Klass’ doesn’t do much more than telling us a simple, linear story. But one that is very consistent and highly effective. Much more than ‘Elephant’ did, and we also get to see the inevitable, harsh outcome of events, with an impact greater than ‘Elephant’ ever had. It hurts seeing things progress from bad to worse in ‘Klass’. The acts of bullying are plain wrong and irresponsible, going far beyond mere immaturity. And seeing two outnumbered teens suffer from severe humiliation, having physical violence inflicted upon them and being subjected to psychological torment is bound to evoke moral turmoil within any viewer. And to such an extent, this happens as the story unfolds.
But the real frustration comes from the fact that there were various ways all this could have been resolved at more than one point in the story, and thus the tragic conclusion could have been prevented. If only certain people would have opened their mouths and talked about this injustice. Take actions to change the course of events. This not only goes for the victimized protagonists, but even more so for the adults (both teachers and parents), with no single one of them making any efforts to get to the bottom of the problem and find out who the real culprits were all along. It’s most terrible that the adult world around them doesn’t see what’s going on. Too wrapped up in their own occupations to take the time to notice. And the youngsters that are not actively taking part in it but nevertheless very much aware, just turn the other way and let it happen. Except for Kaspar. And by doing this, it poses a hurtful conflict in the relationship he’s having with his love-interest Thea, who is on her terms subordinate to group pressure. In terms of the screenplay, this plays out as a splendid, grounded-in-real-life angle of the film’s plot.
The acting of the whole cast is very decent, especially taking into consideration their young age. Most notable are Thea (Paula Solvak), simply the best amongst the young actresses (her part being also the most substantial of all female characters), the victim Joosep (Pärt Uusberg) and his protector Kaspar (Vallo Kirs), with Anders (Lauri Pedaja) delivering a strong turn as the informal leader of the antagonist pack. Their performances, together with the locations and Raag‘s directing, make you perfectly feel that this is real high school life disclosing before your eyes. The music used in the film is also appropriate, steering far away from the more commercially concocted crowd pleasing movies about high school teen conflicts. While ‘Klass’ does feature quite some songs, they are not over-used and applied adequately, either to enhance certain teen characters or for the sake of guiding the viewer through a time-lapse montage from one day to the next (the film is divided into five chapters, as in the five days of a school week).
Perhaps the strongest card Raag manages to pull, is the feeling we’re ultimately left with. A mix of feelings, rather. Not only you won’t feel the urge to laugh at any given moment throughout the film, you will also go through the motions of anger, hatred and despise. Not in the least by the interactions of the teenagers, but also by what some of the adult characters say and do. Like the headmistress (Laine Mägi) degradingly calling Kaspar nothing but a country boy that she would have no problem with expelling from the school. Or Joode’s dominant and morally incorrect father, clearly having raised his son with the wrong set of values, even at one point exploiting the kid financially. Surprisingly so, ‘Klass’ turned out an emotionally laden film that gets under your skin, not by portraying the school violence in an explicit or gratuitous manner, but opting for a more realistic approach. Nevertheless, in the end there will be bloodshed. And it comes down uncompromisingly hard.
So, make no mistake, ‘Klass’ is a mean movie and it will leave you with a sense of depression and grief that might even weigh heavier than you’d expect, because all along you can see it coming. Any film that manages to have this effect, has great material in it handled by a capable director. ‘Klass’ turned out a discovery very much worth it.