As the child of parents who were both educators, I’ve always had a deep respect for those who chose the teaching profession. There are few careers more important or difficult, and those characteristics are what the new German film THE TEACHERS’ LOUNGE examines so thoroughly and shrewdly. Directed by Ilker Catak and co-written with Johannes Dunker, with a wonderful lead performance by Leonie Benesch, it is expected to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best International Film and deservedly so. It had me on the edge of my seat from the get-go and that’s quite an accomplishment for a drama with little in the way of action. But that’s how taut it is in its telling of a story about a petty crime that spins into a major fiasco at a modest middle school.
Carla Nowak (Benesch) is an earnest, well-meaning teacher who is doing double duty instructing both math and physical education. (There’s a sly joke already in that, suggesting that the education system is such that they can’t afford two teachers for the two jobs.) Nowak gives everything her all as she’s a smart and sensitive young woman, trying to adapt well to this new opportunity in the German education system from her native Poland. She puts in the hours as well as the emotional commitment, seemingly 24/7 as we see no personal life of hers of any significance. Carla is the type who wants to be available for pseudo-psychological advice to her students as well, taking on a freelance guidance counselor role as well. Carla’s devotion to her career will turn out to be a blessing and a curse and her good intentions pave the way to hell for students, the faculty, and the community as well. And it all starts when a student from her class gets fingered for those thefts.
To add insult to the matter, Carla must sit quietly and watch as two of her colleagues at the school question two reliably smart members of the student council, egging them to name names. She blanches at the inquisition, particularly since racial slurs rear their ugly head as culprits are considered, and yet, Carla does little to stop the immoral and illegal interrogation of the two children.
A foreign student in her class is fingered for the crime but ultimately, proven to be innocent. Vindicated and relieved, Carla now sets out to find the true culprit, donning her amateur deerstalker and setting up a trap in the teachers’ lounge. There, she leaves her unattended jacket, burgeoning with a full wallet, awaiting the thief to take advantage of it. Carla shrewdly has her cellphone recording it all and it isn’t long before the perp is caught red-handed. With the physical proof in hand, Carla turns to her superior Dr. Bettina Bohm (Anne-Kathrin Gummich), and the two call in the thief for their interrogation and it instantly recalls all the mistakes made when the faculty was questioning those student council members. Making things worse is how defensive and belligerently the accused acts. The interview ends in a shambles with no resolution and the two educators stuck with their proverbial thumbs up their you-know-what.
Then the film does two things, both brilliantly. First, it shows that the attempts Carla and the faculty make to fix all the mess only make matters worse. The escalation into something maddening is both hilarious and harrowing. Staff turns against staff, students against teachers, and Carla becomes the object of everyone’s derision. Second, the remainder of the story wholly illustrates the difficulties of teaching and how it’s not adept at handling our modern world of entitled youth, Karen-ish parents, fuzzy laws, and toothless administrators. Carla, once the heroine of the story, becomes a tragic figure, rashly making one disastrous decision after another.
The knowing script is chock full of wonderful twists and turns, and the direction by Catak ratchets up the tension with every shot, each edit, and a variety of tracking shots trailing Carla all over the school as she tries to set things right. The music by Marvin Miller adds a simple, driving terseness to it all, and the real school setting gives it all an authenticity that at times almost gives it a documentary look and feel.
Now, some have complained about the ending, feeling it fudges all that has gone before. I disagree. To me, it is wholly in keeping with the rest of the film, particularly in its actions that leave no one happy or unscarred. If anything, it’s a disturbingly cynical ending to a story that should have found a more just conclusion considering all of Carla’s earnest actions.
2023 turned out to be a banner year for foreign films, from ANATOMY OF A FALL to THE ZONE OF INTEREST to THE TASTE OF THINGS to this one. THE TEACHERS’ LOUNGE works as a character study, drama, and thriller too, standing shoulder to shoulder with many of the greatest films about teachers like TO SIR, WITH LOVE, UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE, and DEAD POET’S SOCIETY. This film may not always be easy to watch as so many of the teachers’ actions are cringe-worthy, but it is a vivid and compelling examination of just how tough it is to teach.