Das Schweigende Klassenzimmer (2018): Written and directed by Lars Kraume. Starring: Leonard Scheicher, Tom Gramenz, Lena Klenke, Isaiah Michalski, Jonas Dassler, Ronald Zehrfeld, Florian Lukas, Joerdis Triebel, Michael Gwisdek, Burghart Klaussner, Max Hopp, and Judith Engel. Running Time: 111 minutes. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Dietrich Garstka.
Despite modern classics like Goodbye, Lenin and Das Leben Der Anderen, the experiences of life in Communist East Germany remain a topic relatively untouched by German cinema. Why this is I couldn’t say, except to hazard a guess that it’s still #toosoon, too fresh for many still alive who remember it and could claim offense or misrepresentation. After all, how many decades did it take American WWII films to move beyond simple, unquestioning sanctification of “The Greatest Generation?”
This makes Das Schweigende Klassenzimmer a bit of an oddity in the recent upswing of major German movies to come out in recent years. Starring a bevy of young acting talents, it tells the story of a class of Abitur students (the German equivalent of a high school degree) who find out the hard way the price of being a disobedient teenager in a restrictive society. At first, they think nothing of meeting in secret to listen to RIAS, the radio station of democratic West Berlin that was explicitly forbidden as capitalist propaganda within East Germany. One day in 1956, a chilling report comes through of the Soviet’s brutal repression of an attempted democratic movement in Hungary. This immediately strikes at their clear-eyed sense of a morally simple world- the eternal prerogative of the young- and they decide rather spontaneously to hold a protest minute of silence at school the next day, as a show of solidarity with their fellow Hungarian socialists.
Such an unplanned act of deviousness obviously sets off every alarm bell in the heads of the school leaders, fine-tuned to turn every unplanned citizen act into the mark of an enemy of the state; the eternal prerogative of the authoritarian. What begins as a simple trick to anger their teacher soon pulls in the school principal, the parents, and eventually the higher-ups from the education ministry, all threatening dire consequences if an instigator is not thoroughly named and shamed by the entire class.
Most of the film follows Theo, Kurt, and Lena, three students whose uneasy love triangle with each other is easily the film’s weakest link, but to its credit it never draws much focus. They are all fine as performers, but in the end the movie’s heaviest moments and biggest surprises are provided by many of the (at first) seemingly less-consequential side characters. This is especially true for Erik (played by Jonas Dassler), a more distant classmate obsessed with living up to the perceived legacy of his dead father. You might assume at first that you know exactly where the film is going with his character, but the film soon reveals hidden depths to his story that culminate in him having arguably the best and most emotionally gripping scene in the entire film. The entire young cast acquits itself well, but Dassler shines the most with what he’s given.
The older characters are filled out with mainstays of German film and television, and here too, most notably with Kurt’s parents, there are things we eventually learn about them or see them do that contradict what we may have assumed about them from the start.
Authoritarian societies, by their very nature, force nearly everyone living within them to resort to secrecy, to always find ways to hide what they really think while still communicating it to others when needed. In looks, in glances, in how hard you hold someone’s hand, you have to say more than you dare with mere words. The cast and crew of Das Schweigende Klassenzimmer clearly possessed a firm grasp of this fundamental truth in their source material, and continuously find remarkable ways to bring that across throughout the movie, making this film seemingly simple, quiet, and unassuming on the outside, but with more than enough emotional depth to resonate with any attentive viewer.