Features Live Action Movies

The Teachers’ Lounge
(Das Lehrerzimmer)

Director – Ilker Çatak – 2023 – Germany – Cert. 12a – 98m

**** 1/2

A new teacher at a school where petty thefts have been taking place for some time makes some bad decisions which put her in a very difficult place – out in UK cinemas on Friday, April 12th

Schoolboy Lukas (Okar Mats Zickur) is being questioned about recent thefts in the school. Does he have any suspicions as to which of the pupils might be doing this? A girl sits beside him, a class representative, to make sure everything is being done properly. “You don’t have to speak if you don’t want to”, teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Bedesh) assures him. Nevertheless, her male colleague pressurises the boy. First, he gives him a printed list of names with checkboxes and asks the child to tick any relevant boxes. When that doesn’t work, he goes down the list with his finger and asks the boy simply to nod at any suspicious name. He gets a nod.

Teaching in class, with a number of the kids stumped by the current algebra problem, star pupil Oskar Kuhn (Leonard Stettnisch) works through a proof on the blackboard, way in advance of the capabilities his age would suggest. He is clearly gifted and has a bright future ahead of him.

Later, as she’s teaching her class, other staff members interrupt the class to send the girls out of the room then demand to see the boys’ wallets. Ali Yilmaz (Can Rodenbostel) doesn’t want to surrender his; when he reluctantly does so, it’s found to contain a sum of money, which the boy claims was given him by his parents to buy a computer game. So Herr and Frau Yilmaz (Özgür Karadeniz and Uygar Tamer) are hauled in for a meeting with their son and staff members including Carla, but they back up the boy’s story and are furious he has been falsely accused, and in front of his peers too. “In German, please,” says a member of staff as the couple discuss the situation in Turkish. “My son doesn’t steal,” says Mr. Yilmaz in German. “If he did, I’d break his legs.”

The teachers’ lounge, or the staff room as we would call it in the UK, has a piggy bank by the coffee machine for people to pay for their coffee. Ms. Nowak dutifully pays before filling a mug. Later, while other things are going on, we see a woman in the background shaking the piggy bank, as if trying to get money out of it. Savvy staff member Thomas Liebenwerda (Michael Klammer) tells Carla that the stealing has been going on in the school for quite some time, although no-one knows who is doing it. It could be a member of staff.

After working on her laptop in the staff room in a break, Carla leaves it on her desk and her jacket on a chair. When she returns in her next break, some of the money has been taken from her purse, which she left in the jacket. She checks to see it the camera has recorded anything. Sure enough, she has footage of the theft – but no indisputable i-d: merely the arm of a dress jacket distinctly patterned with stars reaching inside the jacket. It could be any female staff member. Only when she visits the office does she see the dress, worn by one of the school admin staff, Ms. Kuhn (Eva Löbau). Nowak confronts Kuhn alone, but Kuhn has nothing to say.

So Nowak goes to talk to Dr. Böhm the headmistress (Anne-Kathrin Gummich), showing her the video which Ms. Kuhn has not yet seen. Kuhn is summoned to the office, asked if she has anything to say – she doesn’t – and is then shown the video. Two consequences follow. One, Ms. Kuhn is suspended from work (she continues to be paid) pending a full investigation. Two, Carla is forbidden from saying anything specific because the use of covert camera equipment to record people is a grey area which could infringe their civil liberties. The school seeks legal advice and in the meantime, no-one is allowed to say anything beyond the fact that Ms. Kuhn is the subject of an ongoing enquiry. So not only has Kuhn crossed a line by committing theft (always assuming there isn’t some other explanation, which seems unlikely), by so too has Nowak by setting up a camera to catch the thief.

Word travels round the school, and soon everyone knows of the incident, including the kids. The most deeply affected is Oskar, Ms. Kuhn’s son, tarred with phrases such as, “like mother, like son” by his classmates. His attitude and class work goes to pot, and he will eventually assault his teacher and steal her laptop…

Carla Nowak seems to get in deeper with every further bad decision she makes. As the newest member of staff, she has previously agreed to be interviewed for the school’s pupil-run magazine, and it doesn’t occur to her to cancel it given everything that’s gone on. Consequently, she does an interview which starts well, but then starts probing about what happened with Ms. Kuhn. The editors promise to show her the article before they publish, but in the end, they don’t stand by that offer. On publication, there is a furore and the school ends up banning this particular issue.

It’s hard to see where this is going except in an ever-worsening downward spiral, but in its final 30 seconds and end credits sequence, the narrative makes an unexpected turnaround that is both unconvincing and questionable.

There is definitely a racist subtext (or subtexts) here; in addition to the Turkish parents speaking their mother tongue, there’s a request elsewhere that Carla Novak and fellow Polish staff member Milosz Dudek (Rafael Stachowiak) speak German at work rather than their native language. The concept of civil liberties is foregrounded in a story which highlights many of the issues surrounding their implementation and preservation.

The narrative is presented from Carla’s point of view throughout, only showing other characters as she comes into contact with them in the course of her daily working life. As a drama, it’s a highly effective portrait of someone’s life unravelling. Bedesh is terrific as the beleaguered teacher under stress who tries a little too hard to do the right thing and ends up becoming completely unstuck. She is onscreen most of the time, and it falls to her to carry the film, which she does admirably. Löbau is suitably creepy, tongue-tied and unrepentant as the woman who (almost certainly) took the money. There are striking performances from various kids, and the supporting cast of adults impresses too.

There are some subtle digs at perceived current Western wisdom – someone commits a crime, is caught on camera, and there’s a concern that they were caught on camera. One scene echoes the Charlie Hebdo protest, with Ms. Nowak suddenly finding that everyone else in the school is wearing the same star patterned jacket that was caught on her laptop camera. The naïveté of youth also gets something of a pasting in the school newspaper subplot, where the young would-be, exposé reporters don’t really understand the consequences of their probing and reporting on their interview subject.

Marvin Miller’s memorable, screechy, string score undermined somewhat by the fact that it seems to consist of the same piece of music reused over and over, but it’s still a highly effective piece of music that adds considerably to the overall atmosphere and tension.

This is probably not a film to go and see to forget your troubles if you are having any type of people or relationship problems. However, it is most definitely gripping, jaw-dropping, edge of the seat stuff. I remain unsure about the ending. Or the two endings. Opinions will differ, so see it and decide for yourself.

Germany’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2024 Oscars.

The Teacher’s Lounge is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, April 12th.


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