16 December 2005 | FilmFlaneur
Evil is good
Imagine the schoolboy sadism of Der Junge Törless (1966), the anarchism of If... (1968), with just a dash of the old school bullying of Tom Brown's School Days, and you get something of the flavour of Evil, which sets its student angst in 1950s' Scandinavia. Ironically for a film that will end up on a relatively pacifist message, it starts with a punch up as the rowdy hero Erik (Andreas Wilson), thrashed by his unpleasant step father at home, duly takes it out on another student at his current school - only to be summarily expelled on the basis of his continuing bad behaviour. Dubbed 'evil' by the headmaster at his disciplinary hearing Erik appears, at least at first sight, to be irredeemably bad. Surly and uncommunicative, a trait he only gradually overcomes, he's a disruptive influence. One measure of the film's success is how it will show a growing moral dimension to this truculent and uncooperative personality, the once-bad boy quickly maturing before our eyes. It will also show how being a 'disruptive' influence can ultimately be a positive, just as much as a negative, force in a closed society. But meanwhile Erik's long suffering mother packs him off at short notice to Stjansberg, an exclusive boarding school where, we are told, are moulded generations of Swedish 'supermen'.
Adapted from a bestselling novel based on painful reminiscence, Evil is praised in interview on the disc by the author for its 'journalistic accuracy' in recreating events. It's a fact that makes the environment in which a more subdued Erik finds himself all the more chilling and depressing. For Stjansberg is a school where the teachers believe in leaving students to their own devices outside of classes, a place where enthused with an ethos of alleged 'team spirit' the system of discipline and punishment is arbitrary, prejudiced against the weak or different, and where elements of fascism still lurk within the teaching profession. Despite its regimentation and strict codes, Erik soon discovers that "there's no honour in (the) school - only ways of making it hell," while eventually realising that "what separates men from animals is not only intelligence, it's morality." Set on a painfully steep learning curve, he makes friends with the best student in the school (his roommate), and while remembering his promise to his mother, struggles to stay out of trouble. Erik's painful introspection at this point recalls that of Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) another film in which a troubled male youngster forms an alliance with a weaker soul (Sal Mineo's 'Plato') while in moral agony over conflicting impulses.
Erik may suddenly be concerned to stay out of conflict, but his refusal to compromise a newfound dignity and moral superiority quickly brings him up against Silverstein, the Flashman figure of the piece who, as a the most visible representation of the fascist strain that permeates the school has "to be fought, now and forever." What infuriates the bullies at the school no end is Erik's unexpected - and, in the light of what we have seen of him previously, uncharacteristic - refusal to fight. Instead he maintains a quiet mocking stoicism, bearing glumly, at least to a point, the institutionalised humiliation heaped upon him. Like Gandhi, a name associated with a philosophy of peaceful protest and civil disobedience (and who is specifically invoked at one point in the film) Erik's mature response to provocation is hard earned, but grows increasingly effective.
Wilson is excellent as the put upon student, although from such a physical person one might have wished more passion in his liaison with Marja, the young woman from the kitchen(Linda Zilliacus), who tacitly supports his tactics. In fact, this affair proves to be Erik's Achilles' heel, and the events leading on from it form the real climax of the picture. So much of Evil has been outstanding and intriguing to this point that it's a shame that the conclusion of the piece, springing so readily from a plot 'plant' earlier in the story, is a little too pat. From the interviews on the R2 DVD the viewer learns that, in real life, the school in question was brought to book by eventual and unwelcome media exposure prompted by the author. Whether or not it was achieved so easily as is suggested by the movie is a moot point, but the convenient threat of sensational journalism, easily obtainable and brought down upon the head of a palpable corrupt and unfair system is too much of let off, at least to this viewer, as well a cliché of a sort, not to pass un-remarked. One imagines that the scene of an arrogant headmaster made to eat humble pie dramatically was too irresistible to exclude, but I sensed here that such a moment was an easy way out.
With this hesitation, one can recommend the film thoroughly, being both excellently shot and acted as well as making an important statement of its own. Rather amusingly in the accompanying DVD material is a comment from one of the principals, that they didn't want it to be "a Dogme film, a small film that no one cares about, we want(ed) it to be a stylish, big, expensive, heavy, good film." It's an ironic remark as, arguably, a stricter and more rigorous approach to the story, familiar from Van Trier and colleagues, would have led to some fascinating dividends especially in the presentation of such stark material. Fortunately filmic conservatism also pays off when the results are so sincere and full of verisimilitude as here, and with a cast who fit their roles like a glove and, as a film with an 'old fashioned' humanistic message about standing out against the evils of totalitarianism in a closed society, the message is as relevant as ever. In short I doubt whether another 'school film' as fine as this will come along for some time, and so seek it out.