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Film / The Elementary School

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The Elementary School (Obecná škola) is a 1991 film from what was once Czechoslovakia,note  in the Czech language, directed by Jan Svěrák.

The setting is 1945-46, in that narrow window between Czechoslovakia's liberation from the Nazis and the Soviets asserting control in the late 1940s. Eda and Tonda are two boys, best friends who look to be about nine years old. Their class is a horribly ill-behaved one in which the kids play games and throw things and whistle and do not even pretend to pay any attention to the teacher. When the kids drive their teacher insane—literally, she has a mental breakdown in the middle of class and walks off in a daze—the school needs to find a new teacher.

They get Igor Hnízdo, who comes swaggering in dressed in the uniform he (supposedly) wore in the Czech resistance, complete with jackboots and a gun. Igor has some serious flaws: it eventually becomes clear that he is making up most of his stories about wartime heroics, and he has an unfortunate fondness for having sex with either married women or teenaged girls. But to the boys in class he's a hero. Eda worships Mr. Hnízdo and seems to find his father Fanouš Souček (Zdeněk Svěrák), a mild-mannered operator at the local electric plant, dull in comparison.

Zdeněk Svěrák, Jan's father, also wrote the screenplay.


  • Apathetic Teacher: Ms. Maxová, the kids' first teacher, has had her spirit broken and ground into dust by her unruly, uncontrollable students. In an early scene she is vainly trying to explain the reproductive system of a flower as the kids hoot and holler and throw stuff and play games. She drops out of her lecture for a bit to say that she doesn't care what the children do, forlornly commenting that “It's your fault what becomes of you.” Then she starts talking about stamens and pistils again.
  • As You Know: How do we learn that the one attractive lady is married to the tram conductor? Because when he shows up at the bar, she greets him with “My husband's back from the tram tracks!”.
  • Book Ends: In the first scene, Eda and Tonda are playing war in a derelict armored car, obviously abandoned during the war. In the last scene, the armored car is towed away.
  • Brats with Slingshots: Rosenheim, probably the worst of all the awful students acting up in class, busts out a slingshot and fires a ball at Eda. (It's Rosenheim who later flings an ink bottle at the blackboard, causing ink-spattered Ms. Maxová to break down and walk out of the building.)
  • The Casanova: Igor, who has sex with a married lady, has sex with teenage twins, and nearly makes it with Eda's mom, also married.
  • Class Trip: Mr. Hnízdo takes the kids on a field trip to see an abandoned bunker, wartime fortifications. This gives Mr. Souček a chance to show he's not as dull as Eda thinks he is, when he picks up an abandoned German panzerfaust (anti-tank weapon) and renders it harmless by firing it off.
  • Cool Gun: Mr. Hnízdo first starts to win over the boys in the class by showing them the pistol he still carries in a holster, supposedly from the war. He then fires a shot out the window.
  • Cool Teacher: Mr. Hnízdo, who plays the violin in class, shows the kids his gun, gives exciting lectures about the immolation of Jan Hus, and tells all sorts of exciting stories about his supposed exploits in the war. He's so cool that when the principal asks, the students lie and pretend that he never smacked them with a rod.
  • Corporal Punishment: When Mr. Hnízdo busts out a rod and starts whacking students on the knuckles, the students point out, correctly, that corporal punishment is forbidden. He answers that it's allowed when a class literally drives its teacher insane.
  • Creator Cameo: Jiří Menzel appears very briefly as the gynecologist who determines that Igor did not impregnate the teenage twins.
  • Dramatic Irony: Poor beleaguered Ms. Maxová is still lecturing about flowers when the kids in class briefly stop acting up and actually start paying attention. Surprised and delighted, she says "This is how you'll learn about nature and its mysteries!" What she doesn't know is that the kids are watching Tonda surreptitiously crawl up under her desk to find out if she's wearing underwear. (The boys are disappointed to learn that she is.)
  • Dramatic Sit-Down: A busybody neighbour hustles in the house and tells Eda's mom that Fanouš was killed in an accident at the power station. Eda goes tearing off to the power station and learns that his father is just fine and the neighbor misunderstood talk about an exploding transformer. When Fanouš comes back home his wife's knees give out and she crumples to the sidewalk in relief, a shot made even more dramatic because it's pouring rain.
  • Elevator School: It's not specified but Eda's class seems to have a wide range of ages. Eda is nine while Rosenheim looks to be in his early teens.
  • Feet-First Introduction: Mr. Hnízdo's arrival at the school is marked by a closeup of his jackboots as he confidently strides in. Then he clicks his heels in greeting before the camera shows his face for the first time.
  • Fixing the Game: Tonda's father cheats at cards at the bar.
  • Grave-Marking Scene: In one scene Eda and Tonda go to a graveyard and Eda changes out the flowers at the grave of an older brother, also named Eda, who died in 1935.
  • Imagine Spot: The movie opens with a shot of an armored car barreling across open country as shells fall everywhere. The only thing is, the people who are driving the armored car are far too young. It's Eda and Tonda, playing war in a derelict abandoned car that's been sitting there since the war was over.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Eda's father Fanouš makes a lot of confident comments about how Czechoslovakia can act as "a bridge between East and West" and at one point confidently states that "Here no dictatorship can flourish." Czechoslovakia's brief post-war window of democracy ended with a Communist coup in 1948, followed by 40 years of dictatorship until the Velvet Revolution.
  • Jail Bait Taboo: When Mr. Hnízdo is brought in to teach Eda's class, the ministry bureaucrat who sent him warns the principal not to let Mr. Hnízdo teach girls. He winds up seducing twin teenaged girls anyway, which caused him to be fired—but bizarrely, when the rumor that the girls were both pregnant turns out to be false, he gets his job back.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Mr. Hnízdo tells all kinds of stories about his exploits during the war: he supposedly fought in Africa, and on the Eastern Front, and he parachuted behind German lines, and he escape from a concentration camp. The principal notes that he knows somebody who fought in Africa and that person had no knowledge of Mr. Hnízdo. Eda and Tonda, who believe their teacher wholeheartedly, argue with other kids who think he's bullshitting. After Fanouš rather politely notes that it sure is impressive that Igor had time to do all that stuff, Igor sheepishly admits that he wanted to give the kids an example.
  • Moment Killer: Igor, who seems to make a habit of going after wives, wants Eda's mom, and from the way she looks at him the attraction is mutual. This plot thread ends when Mrs. Součková shows up in the classroom, looking for Eda, who hasn't come home. After trying to calm her down, Igor embraces her. They look into each other's eyes and clearly are about to kiss...and then Eda and Tonda, who went off joyriding on a train, finally show up.
  • Must Not Die a Virgin: Eda and Tonda are tasked with delivering a message from Mr. Hnízdo to a teacher at another school. It turns out to be a note in which Igor says that it's high time the other teacher lose her virginity. He signs it "Igor the Painless."
  • My New Gift Is Lame: On Eda's 10th birthday he gets a present, a long package wrapped in newspaper. He thinks it's an air rifle and gets really excited. It turns out to be a music stand. He isn't happy.
  • The Peeping Tom: Eda and Tonda peep at two comely young dancers who make the mistake of changing into dance clothes in front of their open apartment window.
  • Poor Man's Porn: When Eda and Tonda aren't peeping in windows, they are getting excited about the drawing showing a woman's naked breasts—in an anatomy book.
  • Powder Trail: The kids like to play with unexploded wartime ordinance, because they're dumb. In one scene they attempt to fashion a rocket out of an unexploded shell. They use a long Powder Trail as a fuse, but the shell barely emerges from the barrel before flopping to earth, and then scooting across the grass and scaring a bunch of picnickers.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Tonda notices that Eda's brother who died in 1935 was also named Eda. Eda says straight-up that he was "a replacement."
  • Scenery Porn: A scene where Eda and Tonda hitch a ride on a train is an excuse for some swooping aerial shots of the rolling hills and golden farmland of rural Czechoslovakia.
  • Schmuck Bait: The principal makes an announcement that, with the hard frost of winter setting in, the kids shouldn't try touching flagpoles or doorknobs with their tongue. Sure enough, four kids touch a railing with their tongues and all get stuck. When Mr. Hnízdo suggests that the announcement was a mistake, the amazed principal wonders if the kids would drink poison if he told them not to.
  • School Play: The film ends with Mr. Hnízdo's students putting on a play that he wrote about Czechoslovakia's liberation. The mom of the one kid playing a Nazi intervenes when the other kids pretend to beat him up.
  • Seamless Scenery: Eda is made to sit in the corner at home after recklessly using his bike to tow his baby sister and her cradle at high speeds. He looks up at the corner—except that it's the corner of the classroom, where a spitball flies into view as the kids continue to misbehave.
  • Slice of Life: A gentle comedy about life in Czechoslovakia in the immediate aftermath of World War II, as rambunctious kids go on adventures while their charming rascal of a teacher chases skirts.
  • Slow Electricity: Fanouš takes his son on a tour of the electric station where he works. The big finish is Fanouš throwing a switch and picking up some load, with homes and street lights getting lit up at a rate of about one streetlight a second.
  • Tongue on the Flagpole: A comic sequence has the principal reminding the kids not to do this, followed by four kids doing this with a handrail and all getting stuck. The kids are further terrified when one teacher busts out a blowtorch to warm the railing; one kid pulls himself off and leaves some tongue behind.
  • Twin Threesome Fantasy: As soon as the good-looking twin teenaged girls get a look at Mr. Hnízdo and start giggling, it's clear what will happen. He is seen walking off with them, one arm around each waist, as his other girlfriend (the tram driver's wife) looks on. Later he's accused of impregnating both girls, but after that turns out to be a false alarm he's re-hired at the school.
  • The Unreveal: Did Mr. Hnízdo, who tells a lot of tall tales about his exploits in the war, actually do anything at all in the war? And if so, what? He's obviously making a lot of it up but he does have a uniform and a sidearm.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Mrs. Součková clearly loves her husband but also obviously feels a sexual attraction for handsome, confident Igor. There are a lot of Held Gazes when Igor drops by their apartment for dinner, gazes that Eda's father completely misses. When an agitated Mrs. Součková comes to the classroom looking for her missing son, Igor embraces her and they almost kiss, but Eda and Tonda finally show up and save Mrs. Součková from herself.
  • The Voice: One Running Gag involves the house next to Tonda's, occupied by a married couple that have a series of extremely loud, nasty arguments. Sometimes the husband comes outside and mopes while his wife continues to scream at him from inside. She's never seen.
  • Violence Really Is the Answer: Rapping the kids' knuckles with a rod actually does help Mr. Hnízdo make them behave.