Monday, January 15, 2024


 by Rob DiCristino

In which the Movie Teacher meets her match.

One of my favorite cinematic cliches is set in the classroom: The scene begins with the teacher mid-lecture, skillfully drawing connections between abstract and seemingly-disparate ideas as the students sit in rapt attention. One scribbles diligent notes, maybe. Others might be goofing off in the back. Our protagonist is nested among them, mulling over their present personal drama and paying only passing attention to the talking head before them — at least at first. But then, something connects; A famous quote. A Shakespearean verse. Whatever it is, our hero zeroes in on it. Maybe they make knowing eye contact with the teacher, who brings their monologue in for a landing just as the bell signals the end of the period. While their classmates break for the door — and the teacher shouts some last-minute instructions that will miraculously be both heard and followed — our hero reflects on their new revelation. This is the Movie Teacher in action, the one who teaches much more than just their subjects: They teach life. Its secrets. The answers still out of reach and those that maybe, just maybe, were in front of us all along.
But İlker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge isn’t interested in the Movie Teacher, even if his idealistic young novice, Carla (Leonie Benesch), has clearly been taken in by their bespectacled, sweater-vested allure. She begins her morning warm-ups with arms raised like a classical maestro — non-diegetic strings even dance their way onto the soundtrack, one of the film’s occasional dips into unreality — leading her middle schoolers in a sing-songy welcome that feels better suited for first- or second-graders. We forgive her the amateur indulgence, though, because we know how important it is for a Movie Teacher to be a beacon of hope, optimism, and integrity. That integrity is challenged when young Ali (Can Rodenbostel, just one of the half-dozen superb child actors that grant the film its next-level authenticity) is accused of stealing from another student. Carla unwittingly becomes party to a series of interrogations led by the more seasoned Mr. Liebenwerda (Michael Klammer), who insists his racist methods are just part of the school’s zero tolerance policy.
And whether driven by the naivety of youth, the righteous indignation of the Movie Teacher, or some combination of both, our poor, misbegotten Carla decides to take matters into her own hands, setting up a hidden camera in the titular lounge and confirming her suspicions about a colleague she believed to be responsible for the theft. Right, however, rarely makes might, especially not when our hapless Carla finds herself dancing through the political minefields of administrative intervention and — most terrifying of all — the parents’ gossipy WhatsApp channel. Initially seeking only to absolve her beleaguered student, to use the power vested in her by our collective faith in the sanctity of our academic institutions to find the hard truths buried beneath institutional biases and personal insecurities, Carla quickly finds herself ostracized from colleagues and students alike. Worst of all, Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), star pupil and son of her felonious colleague, is acting out, bullying others, and threatening physical revenge for the slights against his mother.

A claustrophobic brown box thriller often bordering on psychological horror — especially if you’ve spent any time in the teaching profession — The Teachers’ Lounge doesn’t so much dispense with the fantasy of the Movie Teacher as it sheds a more realistic light on the obstacles that oppose them. Carla expects that, with enough convincing, the adults around her will eventually put aside their human frailties and uphold the self-evident professional responsibilities begotten from their shared moral truths. Teaching is a noble profession, it’s said. We assume that those who practice it are more ethically upstanding than the rest of us. Parenthood, too, breeds a greater sense of purpose and gifts us with wisdom and conscience. This isn’t the halls of the West Wing or the bridge of the starship Enterprise, however: This is a public school, where the students’ juvenilia pales in comparison to that of the teachers, administrators, and parents tasked with their upbringing. A school is a living, breathing animal whose blood pressure is poised to hit fatal highs with the slightest provocation.
Still, Çatak and Johannes Duncker’s screenplay refuses to resort to callow cynicism, presenting a third act that challenges Carla to see beyond the limited vision of her pupils and peers, to filter out the mindless noise and trust the nurturing instinct that brought her to the classroom in the first place. It’s no Dead Poets Society, of course; Carla and her students will continue to fight an uphill battle. But there’s a new solemnity to Carla’s resolve, one that will either embolden her to double-down on her principles or do the infinitely more sensible thing: Use her interpersonal expertise and problem-solving skills to make oodles more money doing nearly anything else (I am, perhaps, projecting just a bit there). No, Carla — whom Leonie Benesch plays with a brilliant eagerness that never compromises her dignity — is a lifer. She knows it as well as we do. But what she does with that life will depend on how much freedom she is given to do her job with the latitude and autonomy it deserves. Given that help, Movie Teacher might eventually find her way into real life.

The Teachers’ Lounge
is currently screening in New York and Los Angeles. A wider U.S. release is forthcoming.

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