A red-haired woman in a red shirt stands in front of a blackboard screaming.

Film Review: The Teacher’s Lounge

Film Reviews

The Teacher’s Lounge
Director: İlker Çatak

Arte and Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen
In Theaters: 02.09

The subject of education and what is or is not appropriate in our public schools is certainly a timely one. While The Teacher’s Lounge is a German film, the only things the film specifically tells us that shows that this story doesn’t take place in an American school are as follows: one, everyone speaks German; and two, guns and religion never come up. Other than that, it’s remarkably relatable.

Carla Nowak (Leone Benesch, The Crown, Around the World in 80 Days) has transferred to a new school, where the new seventh grade teacher stands out among the faculty due to her enthusiasm and idealism. Indeed, Ms. Nowak’s classroom appears to be a harmonious, productive atmosphere of learning, though this doesn’t last for long, as one of her students, Ali (Can Rodenbostel) becomes a suspect in a string of thefts at the school in a crime based on racial profiling and Ms. Nowak takes it upon herself to uncover the truth. Using her laptop, she captures footage of an unknown person taking money from her wallet. This tactic backfires in spectacular fashion when an administrative assistant, Mrs. Kuhn (Eva Löbau, The Forest for the Trees) becomes the chief suspect, which not only costs her a job, but also creates serious friction between Ms. Nowak and one of her students: Oskar Kuhn (Leonard Stettnisch), the son of the accused employee, who is caught right in the middle of a scandal that has nothing to do with him. Ms. Nowak tries to maintain order, reach out to Oskar and stick to her principles as the entire school threatens to crumble around her. She is surrounded by upset parents, strong-willed colleagues and surprisingly hostile students. 

The Teacher’s Lounge is a gripping allegory, shot like a documentary yet structured like a thriller, which keeps you on the edge of your seat. The story touches upon weighty issues including the failures of the justice system, bureaucracy, racism, class division and the dangers of media sensationalism. Director İlker Çatak (Fidelity) takes a cinéma vérité approach that puts us right inside the action, with long shots and handheld cameras that give the film a sense of realism and urgency. Subtle lighting changes and tricks of focus give the school an increasingly sterile and claustrophobic feel that is almost dystopian, though the actual setting never physically changes. The most crucial element in making this finely crafted story so striking is the richness and realism of the characters, each distinct yet easily folded into their own divided factions.

Benesch is superb in the lead role, giving Ms. Nowak a presence that is sympathetic yet commanding, unwavering in her resolve to fix everything even as she starts to wonder if those painting her out to be a villain might not be wrong. Even more striking is Stettnisch, whose low-key portrayal of an honest kid put in a terrible position by the adults whose job is to protect and nurture him is unforgettable. The understated score by Marvin Miller (Balloon, The Girl with the Golden Hands) is unnerving and deeply effective in its minimalist simplicity, with the plucking and bow work on cello and bass creating a steadily increasing rhythm that echoes the protagonist’s heartbeat and sense of foreboding. 

The Teacher’s Lounge, a well-deserved nominee in the Best International Feature category at this year’s Academy Awards, is a spellbinding slice of reality that makes more compelling drama and nail-biting suspense out of politics and the bureaucracy of every day societal structure than we’re likely to see in any spy film or crime story. It’s a skillful and insightful piece of filmmaking that is unlikely to find the wide audience it deserves, though it’s going to leave an indelible mark on nearly everyone who sees it. –Patrick Gibbs

Read More Recent Reviews From Patrick:
Film Review: Bob Marley
Film Review: Argylle