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The Teachers' Lounge
Das Lehrerzimmer

Directed by Ilker Çatak
Produced by Ingo Fliess
Written by İlker Çatak and Johannes Duncker
With: Leonie Benesch, Anne-Kathrin Gummich, Rafael Stachowiak, Michael Klammer, Eva Löbau, Leonard Stettnisch, Oskar Zickur, Antonia Luise Krämer, Elsa Krieger, Vincent Stachowiak, Can Rodenbostel, and Padmé Hamdemir
Cinematography: Judith Kaufmann
Editing: Gesa Jäger
Music: Marvin Miller
Runtime: 98 min
Release Date: 04 May 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.33 : 1
Color: Color

Germany's entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar may be written and directed by a 40-year-old Turkish guy from Berlin, but it's the most Gen-X American movie I've seen all year. The Teachers' Lounge is a propulsive, anxiety-inducing drama about how minor concerns and conflicts in a public middle school escalate into matters of grave concern. Leonie Benesch stars as Carla Nowak, a tightly wrapped, young, altruistic Polish grade school teacher who has recently begun teaching at a German middle school. We're introduced to Carla by seeing her convivial rapport with her students. But director İlker Çatak and his co-screenwriter Johannes Duncker don't waste any time getting their story started. Carla becomes involved in the school’s investigation into a series of petty thefts. She's present at a meeting where the elected class representatives are pressured to finger one of their classmates, a Turkish kid. She then witnesses how the school's blanket "zero tolerance" policy is carried out when all the boys in her class are forced to "voluntarily" empty their pockets and have their wallets searched. She's further appalled that her fellow teachers see nothing wrong in the school's course of action, especially considering that she's seen some of her colleagues engaging in a little light-fingered action themselves around the teachers' common area. But when Carla decides to take matters into her own hands, she winds up escalating the situation and making things a whole lot worse.

Çatak and Duncker ratchet up the tension in this tight 98-minute drama as if it were a thriller about a ticking time bomb. The plucking strings of Marvin Miller's excellent score echo the escalating pressure and Carla's rapidly increasing heart rate. Much of the film is shot in tight close-ups of Benesch's face, registering her ever-intensifying exasperation. Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann employs the 1.33:1 aspect ratio in a claustrophobic manner, making it feel like the walls are closing in on our protagonist. (Between this film, Saltburn, Godland, The Eight Mountains, Perfect Days, and Meastro, 2023 was a heck of a year for the Academy Ratio!) We feel sympathetic to Carla as she's trying to do right by her students, but her responses are as ill-thought-out as they are sanctimonious. She seems woefully naive, as if the righteousness of her motivations justifies her actions and will be enough to protect her and her students from all manner of repercussions.

The film brilliantly conveys the absurd level of difficulty in being a grade-school teacher in our politicized, litigious, easily triggered era. As the story progresses, we start to read everything unfolding at this school as an allegory for how contemporary society's overbearing power structures all but crush the populace. This small story, set in a familiar environment, provides an ideal metaphor for how institutions are growing increasingly authoritarian as they wield less and less actual power and are viewed with rapidly diminishing credibility. We witness the constant toeing of party lines out of fear of legal action or social "cancelation"; the way demonstrably guilty people draw power from righteously denying their guilt and painting themselves as victims; the lack of communal structures to rationally solve problems before they get out of hand; the tendency of privileged groups to co-opt the language of oppressed political movements so they can view themselves as persecuted minorities; the juvenilization of a free press that has dropped all pretense of informing the public in favor of sensationalism and pushing bias narratives in the name of free speech; the omnipresent, self-run surveillance network of messaging forums and social media platforms; and the replacement of basic societal agreements that have been in place for centuries (like those between teachers and students, parents and educators, workplaces and employees) that have had to be replaced with strict, formalized policies and procedures that too often don't fit the specifics of a given problem.

The Teachers' Lounge follows an opposite track from the traditional American "inspirational teacher" genre popularized in the 1980s and '90s, which was all about the power of dynamic individualism. Çatak's film explores the fallout of the type of simplistic thinking in movies like Lean on Me, Stand and Deliver, Mr. Holland's Opus, Finding Forester, Dangerous Minds, etc., has wrought. Like so many young liberal-minded folks, Carla tries to use her small amount of power to make a positive difference in her community and ends up getting smacked down hard. She suddenly discovers herself trapped in a sea of conflicting interests that increasingly challenge her ability to maintain her moral position. She believes the sincerity of her concern and her consistent, measured treatment of her students—shielding them as much as possible from the hypocrisy and unfairness of the adult world—will be enough to set them up for a bright future. But many of these kids don't buy into that type of magical thinking, as they already live in the world Carla is trying to protect them from. I wish The Teachers' Lounge had a more satisfying conclusion, but you can't fault this movie for ending on an ambiguous note since there are no easy or definitive answers to the problems it's addressing. As Carla is left to navigate between her best intentions and a system that sets her up to fail, she concludes that her only options are to withdraw or to stand with the side she feels most aligned with.

Benesch is riveting. Her performance and the ways Çatak captures it keep us emotionally aligned with Carla at every moment, as she's painted as a troublemaker and a possibly incompetent teacher. At the same time, we're frustrated at how little she seems to think through her actions before taking them. Even though she's new at the school, and many of her fellow teachers act more childishly than her students, I'm sure she could have found an ally or two to discuss options with before taking matters into her own hands. But her sense of isolation is part of the brilliance of this movie's structure, photography, and editing. Like so many of us, Carla is as responsible for her predicament as anyone else. Rather than make her a hero or a martyr, the film sees her deal with this reality, understand it, accept it, stop trying to undo the past, and starts focusing on moving forward in the most just and equitable way.

This reading of the movie is why I think The Teachers' Lounge will appeal specifically to folks of my generation. As a middle-aged person, I'm often surrounded by older and younger folks obsessed with assigning blame to others for the precarious state of the world, but not enough who seem willing to accept their role in creating and perpetuating the problems. Generation X is often painted as the most apathetic part of the current population, but it's not that we are disinterested or disconnected from the issues of the day; we just don't typically rant and rave about them to the same extent as other age groups. This seeming lack of passion and vitriol comes, at least in part, from living long enough to realize that we're complacent in the world our parent's generation built and our children's generation is trying to reshape. And even as we try to work towards solutions, we know we may ultimately do more harm than good.

In no way is The Teachers' Lounge a polemic. Çatak has created a film that is, first and foremost, entertaining and engaging on a visceral level. But its lasting power puts it in conversation with two of its more intentionally pedagogic 2023 contemporaries, Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest and Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon. This film falls somewhere between those two pictures in terms of its ability to make us think. Whereas the former might have been mind-blowing 30 to 40 years ago, to someone my age at least, watching Zone of Interest in 2023 induces a feeling of—yeah, society already learned about the banality of evil, the lesson didn’t really take, and I highly doubt this arthouse work of slow-cinema is going to reach those who might have missed Hannah Arendt's message. But the overt allegory in The Teachers' Lounge can be more easily dismissed than the straightforward historical approach of Killers of the Flower Moon, which is not a metaphor but an illustrative example of not only the idea that most of us are complacent in the evils of our society but that complacency can be an act of evil itself. As excellent a parable as I think The Teachers' Lounge is, I can see how it might come up short for those viewing it from a different generational or political perspective.

Twitter Capsule:

İlker Çatak's propulsive, anxious drama about how absurdly difficult it is to be a grade-school teacher these days serves as a powerful allegory for how contemporary power structures crush the populous and how self-righteous good intentions escalate the problems.