After getting into one fight too many, Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson), is expelled from his school and branded evil by his headmaster. Erik’s despairing mother sells some of her possessions to send him to Solbacka Boarding School in a last ditch effort to get him to graduate to the 6th form, making him promise not to get expelled. Strangely enough Erik does not seem upset at this move, seeing at as an opportunity to escape the beatings dished out to him by his stepfather and make a fresh start. On arrival at the school he is impressed by the facilities and the first two people he meets, the prefect Silverheim (Gustaf Skarsgard) and his room-mate Pierre (Henrik Lundstrom) and immediately we can see him thinking he will settle. His illusions are soon shattered when at lunch, one of the junior schoolboys is heard swearing and told to report to the top of the table where a prefect administers a pepperpot – a blow to the top of his head with a heavy knife, the teachers ignoring this. Pierre later explains that this is the way of the school; the 6th form council police the school and are given free rein by the teachers to do so. Erik recognises the injustice of this system and sets out to oppose it, but remembering his promise to his mother, does this peacefully, reluctantly accepting the increasingly harsh punishments imposed on him by the council for refusing to obey them. At the end of the first term Erik triumphs in the school swimming competition, thinking he has bested the council. When he returns to school, however, they have a new tactic and attack his weaker friends, Pierre and the dinnerlady (Linda Zilliacus) with whom he has started an unlikely romance. As his friends are persecuted and driven out of the school, Erik becomes more and more alienated, his other classmates forced to join in on the beatings given to him and his snapping point gets closer. Eventually resorting to violence himself, Erik finally triumphs using a mixture of brain and brawn.
Nominated for best foreign film Oscar and based on a true story this a highly enjoyable film. Erik at the start of the film comes across as an arrogant bully himself and yet when we see him being beaten by his stepfather for no reason, our sympathies are immediately with him, recognising immediately he has moved from one habitat of violence and oppression to another when he thought he had escaped. The hierarchy within the school is a familiar one – the richer and more powerful factions of the school having complete control over the majority and seems a microcosm of society, particularly one just after World War II. Erik’s trials in the face of adversity never seem unbelievable or moralistic and this is part of the film's strength – being based on reality (all the punishments and beatings given to Erik were, it seems, based on actual events), the motivations and reasons behind them are more than adequately explained. The things that let the story down slightly are Erik’s romance and his victory in the swimming meet. The first of these is simply unbelievable (I’d have loved to have had a dinnerlady that looked like Zillacas!), the second just doesn’t seem to ring true and it’s surely no coincidence that these events were purely fictional.
Director Mikael Hafstrom does an admirable job, getting good performances from his stars. Wilson is impressive as Erik, giving him a feel of his hero James Dean. He is broody and aggressive yet there is always something likeable about him and Lundstrom is equally as impressive as his often-comic sidekick Pierre. 1950’s Sweden never looks anything other than authentic, and some of the scenic shots are captivating. The violence in the film is handled with restraint too. Often brutal and bloody, it is always quick and believable, and never the focus of the film. Like Dead Poets Society this is a heartwarming film where you root for the hero, although it does have an edge and is all the better for that.