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Exploring Authority and Rebellion in “The Teachers’ Lounge” by İlker Çatak | Review

Young teacher Carla Nowak's theft investigation in a multicultural German school reveals racial tensions and ethical dilemmas, challenging societal harmony.
The Teachers Lounge (2023) by İlker Çatak

FILM REVIEWS

The Teachers’ Lounge (2023)
Original title: Das Lehrerzimmer
Director: İlker Çatak

Nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film, The Teachers’ Lounge by Berlin filmmaker İlker Çatak is a sharp parable about the search for a truth that everyone can share, especially in a multicultural society like Germany. Reflecting on this and the concept of justice, the practices to affirm it and their correctness, and the roles of victim and perpetrator, the film utilizes a brisk narrative pace and a nuanced performance by Leonie Benesch.

The Complications of Truth

Carla Nowak is a young and promising math and physical education teacher on her first assignment at a middle school in Hamburg. Everything seems to be going well until a series of small thefts within the school throws the institution into turmoil. When suspicion falls on one of her students, Carla decides to investigate personally, triggering a series of unstoppable chain reactions.

About a year ago, we talked about the French film Playground as a successful example of school setting cinema, immersing the viewer in a closed microcosm similar to a concentration universe where the law of the strongest is exercised in interpersonal relationships and the teachers’ absolute powerlessness to mitigate injustices and abuses among students. The same can be said for The Teachers’ Lounge, the fourth film by German director İlker Çatak, perhaps a bit surprisingly nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film. It presents the same linguistic approach to the subject, focusing equally on both sides, the teachers and the students. The film starts in medias res: the school’s teaching staff is in turmoil because of repeated small thefts affecting both students and instructors, and the culprit needs to be identified. Following a zero-tolerance policy outlined by the principal, investigations are conducted on the students, leading to a first suspect, a Turkish student named Ali, found in possession of a large sum of money actually given to him by his mother to buy a video game.

Here, a key point of the narrative emerges: the exercise of suspicion in a multicultural society, although advanced like Germany, inevitably causes lacerations and racial tensions. The foreigner feels the weight of mistrust that hinders full integration into the community; to a lesser extent, even Carla, being Polish, is partially an outsider within the school walls. The methods used on the students to identify the thief are not entirely orthodox, ranging from interrogating student representatives in the hope of useful information to confiscating wallets in front of the class during regular lessons. Carla watches with irritation as the school’s invasive attempts to find the truth unfold, and the story reaches a turning point when she decides to take on the investigation herself, secretly pointing her laptop webcam at her jacket left unattended in the teachers’ lounge. The device indeed records a theft attempt, revealing the second strong theme of the film: the legitimacy of private justice, with the subtext of discussing the veracity of moving images that seem to clearly indicate a culprit but cannot be considered conclusive evidence without further verification.

Carla’s actions turn much of the school environment against her; not only because she violates the other teachers’ rights by recording them without their consent but also because she opens a deep rift with the students who react through the school newspaper (whose motto is “The truth transcends all boundaries”) as a tool of protest. The contrast between young and old, combined with the confined setting where the camera never leaves the school interior, can recall not only Playground but also a fine film from about ten years ago, the Slovenian Class Enemy by Rok Biček, which also depicted a “class” revolt against the authoritarianism of the older generation. However, in The Teachers’ Lounge, this is more nuanced, not attributable to a single figure but present as a functioning system, a set of rules. To build his parable, Çatak employs extreme dynamism in the camera work, inspired by his viewing of the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems. The camera is constantly nervous as it follows Carla through the school corridors and very reactive in the more polyphonic scenes of debate or confrontation between one or more characters. This stylistic feature gives the film an effective continuous rhythm, aided by cinematographer Judith Kaufmann’s ability to smoothly transition from more mobile shots to fixed interpolations. This allows Leonie Benesch’s sensitive acting to move seamlessly through various states of mind, from initial resolve and composure to the dismay and confusion characterizing the film’s second part, when she also physically suffers the hostility of the surrounding environment. However, the film’s strength is essentially dramaturgical, involving a sequence of scenes that always carry a conflict between the protagonist and an interlocutor, whether a single person (the accused secretary’s son) or a group (parents in an assembly). This way, the narrative masks its pedagogical nature, sometimes overly emphasized, and is charged with constant tension always near breaking point, which the allegorical tones of the ending cannot fully resolve. The Teachers’ Lounge is a film with a clear objective: to instill doubts about the stability of a perfectly harmonious and democratic society. Only the young seem to have the quick reflexes to react to the problems around them, refusing to conform and trying to learn what they can from their teachers, even though it’s uncertain if the teachers have truly learned the lesson themselves.

Alessio Palma

Quinlan, February 28, 2024

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