Zero for Conduct (1933)

Using all the tools at his disposal to take on the establishment, the 27-year-old Jean Vigo shows life as it is and film as it can be in Zero for Conduct.

Zero for ConductFrance

Jean Vigo

Jean Vigo

Director of Photography:
Boris Kaufman

Running time: 40 minutes

Original title: Zéro de conduite

Orson Welles was 25 when he started shooting Citizen Kane, a film whose tongue-in-cheek, broad-strokes reference to media magnate William Randolph Hearst landed him in hot water but ultimately re-defined the parameters of the possible in movie making. Seven and a half years earlier, under very different circumstances, a 27-year-old Frenchman named Jean Vigo, the son of a prominent anarchist assassinated for his beliefs, had started production on a medium-length film that also took a shot at re-inventing the wheel and arguably succeeded beyond the director’s wildest dreams.

The title was Zero for Conduct (the full title is subtitled “Young Devils in School“), and it is a visionary take on childhood rebellion against oppressive school structures. These 40 minutes are a corner stone of what film enthusiasts refer to as the “poetic realism” movement, to which Vigo would contribute just one more film – his only feature, L’Atalante – before his tuberculosis-induced death at the age of 29.

Poetic realism refers to a loose array of socially conscious films made in France during the early years of “sound cinema” that focused on working-class characters. Besides Vigo, the best-known directors of the movement included Jean Renoir (Les bas-fonds / The Lower Depths, 1936), Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko, 1937) and Marcel Carné (Le Quai des brumes / Port of Shadows, 1938).

Nearly 75 years after it was made, Jean Vigo’s controversial take on the French educational system (the film was banned until the end of the Second World War) remains an astonishing accomplishment because it is not a stale vision of the world weighed down by the technology of the time. The title refers to the punishment meted out to school children, no matter how small the alleged infraction: detention on Sunday.

Although made shortly after the advent of the “talkie”, a development that halted the strides made in cinematography over the previous decade, Zero for Conduct is remarkably supple, thanks in no small part to its 26-year-old cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, the younger brother of the cinema’s first visual wizard, Dziga Vertov. And the storytelling, albeit frequently patchy, somehow lifts the viewer into the clouds thanks to the playful nature of the events as depicted.

The opening scene is particularly attention-grabbing: Unfolding as a scene from a classic silent film, it contains a strong score by Maurice Jaubert and no audible dialogue. Inside one compartment of a moving steam train, two young school boys are amusing themselves by blowing balloons and pretending they are a woman’s breasts, which they naturally proceed to fondle.  They also smoke cigars, blow on a miniature trumpet and perform the old “pulling off your thumb” trick in close-up, all while the one adult in the scene (an as yet anonymous character opposite them) is so fast asleep the boys imagine he might be dead.

As soon as the train pulls into the station, however, reality sets it, and it does so by penetrating the film itself: The dreamland of silent cinema fades away as the boys get off the train and we hear a soundtrack reproducing their movements and dialogue. They are returning to boarding school after the holidays and discover that the man who was sleeping in the train is in fact the new school monitor, Huguet, played by the wonderfully youthful Jean Dasté.

The casting of Dasté, who had débuted in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning the previous year, as the only likeable teacher (who even imitates Chaplin’s Tramp to amuse his students) is inspired and ultimately strengthens our resolve against his creepy colleagues.

Vigo effortlessly interweaves the children’s gaiety and inclination for mischief with more serious incidents of injustice at the school. And the tone is always light, even as events seem to be heading towards their inexorable conclusion: large-scale rebellion. He does this by depicting the authority figures as rather pathetic. The clearest example is the headmaster, played by a thickly bearded dwarf with a high-pitched voice who stores his bowler hat under a glass dome. The contrast between his high position in the school hierarchy and the lowly way in which he is represented is so stark it is all but certain to elicit laughter from the viewer.

The tall, gangly apparently mute housemaster, Beanpole, who steals from the children and is generally odious, cuts another comical figure. Huguet makes a drawing of him by hand, which comes to life and turns into an animation of a stick-figure Napoleon Bonaparte. Earlier in this same classroom scene, a boy tossed a ball into the air before a jump cut made it disappear in mid-air. These are very brief, arguably inconsequential moments for the narrative, but they do add a level of playfulness that borders on magical realism.

The most famous scene, however, is the late-night pillow fight that precedes the climactic uprising. Using slow motion and producing a kind of indoor snowfall with purely conventional means (feathers), Vigo demonstrates his skill at turning the mundane into something enchanting, fashioning beauty out of childhood rebellion. This scene has been reproduced in a group of films as distinct as Fanny and Alexander and Billy Elliot, and there is no question Zero for Conduct influenced the depiction of school episodes involving Antoine Doinel, the school-flunking central character in François Truffaut’s début feature, The 400 Blows.

Although it is more a collection of well-staged fragments rather than an elegantly maturing narrative, Zero for Conduct is a kind of magic. Filled with anger at authority figures, it also hurls its derision at and cuts them down to size by using a novel approach to realism that seeks to break free and soar towards the skies: poetic realism.

Class Enemy (2013)

class enemySlovenia

Rok Biček

Nejc Gazvoda

Rok Biček
Janez Lapajne
Director of Photography:
Fabio Stoll

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Razredni sovražnik

Although inviting comparisons with the French The Class (Entre les murs) because of filmmaker Rok Biček’s decision to shoot the entire film inside a single school building (the camera never even ventures outside, not even onto the playground), the Slovenian Class Enemy, which uses first-time actors for the student roles, is a more stylised representation of the tension created by a teacher whose straight talk is the spark that ignites an outwardly calm but already combustible situation.

The film is based on real events the director himself was witness to during his first year of high school, although he significantly altered the focus by having a single teacher (instead of what was historically a larger group of individuals) bear the brunt of the students’ attacks. The character is called Robert Zupan (Igor Samobor), a cold and distant educator who has only one desire: To see the children make something of themselves and achieve their best by doing their best, which he judges not to be the case at all when he replaces their beloved German teacher, Nuša (Maša Derganc), who is also the class teacher.

But the very first scene, which is set before Zupan’s arrival, should make it clear to those paying attention that all is not well. A dreadful silence hangs in the air, and we soon learn that one of the boys, Luka (Voranc Boh), has lost his mother. This being a high school, with dozens of children who are all very different, many things are said that can have an impact on others, and one ill-conceived comment by another boy in class, Tadej (Jan Zupančič), about how unnatural it is for someone to grow up with two fathers (because he says a child cannot grow up well if it doesn’t have both a mother and a father), seems entirely inappropriate in light of Luka’s recent loss.

Throughout the first act, an introverted girl named Sabina (Daša Cupevski) seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the only thing holding her back from the precipice is her ability to play one of Chopin’s piano preludes. Zupan seems impressed and is even mesmerised by her performance, but before long he has a direct talk with her about her plans for the future, and when these appear to be nonexistent, he tells her she may become just another “loser”, and perhaps her parents are to blame.

She flees the class room in tears and literally into the white light outside that floods the screen, before we learn she has committed suicide. The students soon revolt against what they deem to be oppression, or even totalitarian rule by their German teacher the “Nazi”, and the consequences are grave.

Biček’s director of photography, Fabio Stoll, bathes the entire film, with the exception of a final scene that takes place outside, in a cold blue hue, and costume designer Bistra Borak also clothed most of the actors with navy blue material or jean jackets. The effect on the audience, remarkably, is not alienation but a thorough immersion in the frigidity these characters all have to deal with, because they all deal equally awkwardly with the life-changing event of a student’s suicide, for which there is no definite reason.

The director is no stranger to the depiction of existential anguish, as his student short Duck Hunting presented the case of two young men who take revenge on their father for an act he committed that is clear but never shown. Biček is a formidable director, completely in control of his subject, and his script, tightly focused on the mass heart ache and the easy transition to a mob mentality, has a palpable feeling of mystery and sadness at its core.

There is never a dull moment, and the shift in our understanding of the teacher’s motivations, from fear to potential empathy, is handled adroitly by the director, who also edited the film along with co-screenwriter Lapajne. This may be one of the best feature films débuts in a very long time. Despite the limitations the director imposed on himself, which prevent us from seeing these people interact outside the confines of the school, their bubble of existence inside the building does provide us with a sense of cohesion — a bubble of existence that is self-sufficient and whose energy can exert great force on those it comes into contact with. The events hurtle towards a well-conceived conclusion that makes a great deal of sense and provides us with an ending that is both logical and emotionally satisfying.