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Dead Poets Society: a touching masterpiece

The 1989 film, Dead Poets Society was considered a milestone in several ways: firstly, the director Peter Weir proved that Hollywood is able to tell thematically profound films, far from the action-packed mainstream culture. Secondly, the chief actor Robin Williams, starring in the role of the educator John Keating, was by the public firstly received as a serious none-comedian actor, which catapulted him out of the genres of comedy.

The plot

Dead Poets Society plays in 1959 at the Welton Academy, a boarding school with highly conservative values. The students are to be prepared for studying at an elite university. The main characters are the shy student Todd Anderson, who has no self-confidence and always stands in the shadow of his successful brother and the English teacher John Keating. For both this is the first school year at the Welton Academy.

While the teaching at the boarding school are characterized by drill and stubborn learning by heart, Keating takes a different approach. He wants to encourage his students individually, relay to them the beauty of poetry and literature. He also wishes to teach them to think for themselves. Due to this individual support, even the shy Todd Anderson, slowly develops a sense of self-confidence.

Unusual teaching methods

For the educational conservative institution, Keaton's teaching methods are nothing short of revolutionary. For example, he encourages his students step out to the teacher's desk, to see the world from a different perspective. At another occasion, he exercises drill on the school yard to demonstrate to the students how people change as soon as they become followers. While the students are enthusiastic about these methods and begin to set their own goals, Keaton's style is highly depreciated by the teaching staff.

During the school year, students discover a photo of their teacher in an old yearbook. They learn that he once was part of the "Club of the Dead Poets", which later was banned by the school management. When asked about this strange club, Keaton explained to his students that the members met in an old Indian cave to appreciate their love for poetry. Subsequently, some students decide to revive the club. At night, they sneak off the school grounds, to recite poems and enjoy the prohibited club.

The situation escalates

Keaton’s unconventional teaching style awakens a passion for acting in the student Neil Perry. His father, however, is strongly opposed to his son’s interest, considering acting was an unnecessary waste of time. To defy the father’s paternal powers, Neil takes on the role of Puck in a production of Shakespeare’s "Midsummer Night's Dream". Neil’s disobedience has dire consequences for the boy. His father takes him out of the school to further his career at a military academy. Neil realized that he will never be able to follow his dream as an actor but had to follow what his father had cut out for him. Subsequently Neil commits suicide.

A scapegoat?

The school board holds John Keating personally accountable for Neil’s suicide. His students are forced to sign a statement, which is riddled with false allegations. In the final scene, however, the students put their loyalty to the beloved teacher to work: The headmaster attempts to deny Keating taking personal belongings out of the classroom. The once shy Todd Anderson climbs on the table, calling to his teacher: "Oh Captain, my Captain too!" Other students follow. This act of rebellion renders the headmaster utterly powerless.

The central message of the film

Dead Poets Society picks up on the social upheaval that started in the mid-1950s beginning in the US and subsequently washed over the entire Western world. Peter Weir achieves this with sensitivity, without pathos and clichés. The central theme is the conflict between tradition, obedience and discipline, shaped by the parental world and the desire for self-fulfilment and individual freedom in young people.

The key ideas of this film are tradition, honour, discipline and performance; with a strict curriculum and harsh punishment, crowned by achievement. Neil’s suicide reveals, that the individual very well may break under such a system. The single most important message that John Keaton transmits to his students on the path of life is: "Carpe Diem", - “Seize the day”. In this light, the film can be seen as an invitation follow your imagination, your dreams and realize your principles without giving in to society’s constraints, which hamper your personal freedom.

Why is the film not mainstream

Tom Schulman, recalling his own schooling at the Montgomery Bell Military Academy and his English teacher Dr Sam Pickering, was inspired by the screenplay. The story contains essential elements from works of the English and American literature. These include British classics such as William Shakespeare and Robert Herrick, as well as the American romanticist Henry David Thoreau and representatives of American modernism such as Robert Frost. They were all known as rebels, standing up against the social norms of their times.

The film "Dead Poets Society" as a basis for discussions in the youth group

I think every young person can find parts of themselves reflected in this movie. He will discover new things and emphasize with one or the other character. It’s about becoming your own personality, finding your own way, friendship, solidarity as well as learning to develop self-esteem. These are all goals of young people. However, given their youth, they might not be able to word their concerns, yet, just like that but recognise them mirrored back in the film. How do I actually want to live – this is the central question of this movie.

On the other hand, though, the young person is subjected to constraints, resentment, restriction of free will and, other circumstances/people out of their control (parents, teachers, classmates). A theme which is also very well depicted.

This film clearly shows the complexity of life and its dependencies. On the one hand, you see the followers, the hypocrites who go with the flow. Those who chose to be “remotely controlled”, those who want to be good. Those who refuse to think for themselves, those who always say yes, trying to fulfil everybody’s expectations but forget to live their own life. On the other hand, you see those who want to go their own way, who want to develop their own personality. Those who wish to be creative, who want to live their dreams and those who do not fear authority.

And in between? There you see those who engage in resentment, rejection, condemnation, exclusion, begrudging and condemning those who think differently. The teenager feels torn between the good and the authentic. A conflict of emotions, maybe even overwhelmed by the excessive demand and psychological stress, which is reflected in Neil’s suicide.

The conclusion:

Every young person has potential – even if they don’t know it (yet). Unfortunately, this potential is often not discovered. Young people should be encouraged to find themselves, identify their skills, their potential and, above all, grow a strong personality. Refuse, staggering through life somewhat “remote controlled”. That attitude does not lead anywhere other than psychological stress and dissatisfaction. In the extreme even to suicide.

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