At the large, modern school where the contentious events of The Teachers’ Lounge unfurl, Carla Nowak is the newbie instructor, fresh-faced and eager. By the end of the film, she’s more chastened and anxious than bursting with gung-ho spirit — which is not to say she’s been defeated by the insanity around her. But she has learned a thing or two about the absurdity of organizational politics in the digital age of the antisocial socials, laid bare in İlker Çatak’s pointed yet never simplistic drama.
The outside world is barely glimpsed in the movie, and the microcosmic significance of the school premises, somewhere in Germany, couldn’t be clearer. As a smaller version of a contemporary tinderbox, the community of teachers, students, administrators and office workers that Çatak and his cast inhabit never feels overly weighted with symbolism. Its powder-keg dynamics are fully alive and infuriating, even as they transparently replicate, with the slightest satiric edge, the us-vs.-them rancor, canned talking points and half-baked assertions that pass for dialogue in public arenas — of the professional media sort as well as all the other chatter.
The Teachers’ Lounge
The Bottom Line Not your average day in class.
Germany’s submission to the Academy Awards had a strong showing at the Berlin festival and went on to win five trophies at the German Film Awards, including the top prize and the best actress nod for Leonie Benesch, best known to international audiences for her turn as a teenage nanny in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Here, as a smart young woman whose impulsive quest for truth ignites a firestorm of accusations, she taps into a gripping combination of idealism, naiveté, vulnerability and fury.
Carla is introduced to the culture of suspicion at her new workplace in the film’s opening sequence: She finds herself in a meeting where, much to her eye-rolling amazement, two of her fellow teachers are pressuring a couple of students to essentially turn state’s evidence against one of their classmates — an incident that an enraged mother later calls “inciting them to denounce others.”
The crime at hand is a series of thefts — cash, classroom supplies — that a few members of the faculty have made it their mission to solve. During the meeting with the two class representatives, the snide Lukas (Oscar Zickur) and earnest Jenny (Antonia Küpper), teacher Thomas Liebenwerda (Michael Klammer) is not just insistent about the naming of names but a master manipulator. Before placing a list of suspects before the seventh-graders, he smoothly commands them to “put yourself in the victims’ shoes.” In one form or another, we’ve all heard that one before.
And then there’s the classic “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear,” which principal Bettina Böhm (Anne-Kathrin Gummich) intones when she and teacher Milosz Dudek (Rafael Stachoviak) demand to inspect the wallets of all the boys in Carla’s classroom. This leads to accusations against Ali (Can Rodenbostel) that his understandably outraged parents put to rest. But as Carla will learn the hard way, allegations of wrongdoing have a considerable half-life.
It’s in the movie’s title setting (Das Lehrerzimmer) that the sharp screenplay by director Çatak and Johannes Duncker kicks into high gear with a bit of low-tech surveillance. There’s nothing relaxed or relaxing about the lounge where teachers spend their time between classes. There, Thomas and his fellow buttinsky Vanessa König (Sarah Bauerett) push the case for meting out punishment to the still unidentified thief, and endlessly stir the winds of war. “We need to act,” Thomas insists.
Carla, who teaches the kids that “a proof needs a derivation that builds up step by step,” believes in that tenet of mathematical logic and sets out to build such a proof. After witnessing a fellow instructor stealing from a communal piggy bank, she sets a trap using her unattended wallet and video-recording laptop. The resulting visual evidence — a violation of personal rights, Dudek assures her — seems to indict office manager Friederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau), who is also the mother of one of Carla’s best students, soulful-eyed math ace Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch).
After finding out why his mother stormed out of work, Oskar proves an ardent defender of her honor, and demands that Leonie apologize publicly. News spreads through the classrooms, corridors and, yes, the dreaded lounge, the spaces and their interconnectedness expertly investigated by cinematographer Judith Kaufmann (Corsage, My Wonderful Wanda), working in the 4:3 aspect ratio — the squarish frame reinforcing the notion of a narrowed stand-in for the wider world. Particularly striking is the sequence in which Carla watches, from an upper-floor classroom window, as Oskar moves from group to group in the schoolyard, gathering support against his mother’s accuser.
But while Thomas and Vanessa gleefully turn their heat-seeking sights on Ms. Kuhn, Carla would happily undo the chain reaction she inadvertently fueled. Marvin Miller’s excellent score accentuates the creeping sense of dread and the emotional unraveling, the notes’ discordancy jabbing like overworked nerves. A disastrous parent-teacher conference prompts a panic attack for Carla, but even on a good day she’s facing a group of feisty 12-year-olds. Some haven’t the slightest remorse when they’re caught cheating (Vincent Stachowiak) or skipping class (Padmé Hamdemir, Lisa Marie Trense), and some clamor for test results to be posted in order to enshrine the academic pecking order — and their own success.
As the kids close ranks against Carla and the staff of the school paper wields a particularly dishonest form of gotcha journalism under the guide of righteousness, the school’s guidance counselor (Kathrin Wehlisch) offers reason and sympathy, moments of refuge from the dangerously charged atmosphere.
But rather than a pileup of bad behavior, the screenplay offers shifting perspectives as to who’s being sensible and who isn’t, who means well but executes badly, with few characters falling unequivocally into the camp of “right” or “wrong.” Çatak draws nuanced work from the cast, experienced actors and newcomers alike, with Benesch veering masterfully between openhearted hope and tense physicality, and young Stettnisch utterly compelling in Oskar’s watchfulness and hurt as well as his quiet determination.
That Carla’s ordeal takes place in a country as hypervigilant about its infamous 21st century history as Germany is not insignificant. But the dramatic pressure cooker Çatak and Duncker have imagined could be set in any multicultural Western society — places where censorship and trial by media are increasingly the norm.
Labeled a spy and even at one point finding her Polish roots the subject of scrutiny, Carla has marched with untempered youthful conviction under the banner of truth, only to find it shredded. Yet her idealism, however misplaced at first, doesn’t die. When she gathers the warring kids in the gym for a problem-solving physical exercise designed to foster togetherness, the experiment is a debacle. But it also succeeds. The Teachers’ Lounge is a pulse-pounding exploration of the ways we draw lines between enemies and friends, and the courage it takes to blur them.