When we visit a school in İlker Çatek’s The Teachers’ Lounge (Das Lehrerzimmer), we discover a microcosm for society. It is not just a story of teachers, students, and parents. It is a reflection of many of the issues that must be dealt with in many settings each day. The Teacher’s Lounge is Germany’s official submission for Best International Feature Oscar® consideration.
Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) is an idealistic young middle school teacher. Some in the class, as we might expect, are less than enthusiastic to be there, but Ms. Nowak cares for all of them. One of the issues the school is trying to deal with is a rash of thefts. One day, the principal and two male teachers come into her classroom, send the girls out and have the boys “voluntarily” leave their wallets on their desks. One boy (who happens to be of Turkish descent) has a suspiciously large amount of money and is assumed to have stolen it. Nowak wants to make sure that the boy is not railroaded. He turns out to be innocent, but the accusation is assumed true by most.
In the teachers’ lounge, Nowak sees another teacher pilfering coins from the piggy bank used to collect money for coffee. She sets up a trap by leaving her wallet in her jacket, then setting her laptop for a video recording. When she returns, there is money missing from her wallet and we see someone’s arm come into view reaching for the wallet. When Nowak discovers a secretary in the school office wearing the same blouse, she confronts her, then goes to the principal with the evidence.
The repercussions of the accusation are far more than Nowak might have imagined. Her recording violated privacy laws. There is increasing uproar among faculty, students, and parents over the situation in large part because there is so much secrecy about it. Nowak becomes the focus of ire. Her support among colleagues quickly evaporates and she is left alone to face the anger and accusations about her.
We only see Carla Nowak in the school setting. We know nothing about her private life or history. The character is so tied to the job that at times we get the impression that she lives at the school. Early in the film we might see this as dedication. As the conflict grows, it may seem more like she is hiding within the school walls. The pressure on her seems to be amplified by the use of 4:3 aspect ratio that grows ever more claustrophobic.
As I mentioned, this all reflects issues that play out in the wider world. Racism, institutional politics, “fake news”, and cancel culture all find their way into this story. We are purposefully left with many unresolved questions. Our ideas of who is believable shift throughout the film. So too do our views of who may be a victim and who deserves our sympathies. We are left to ponder what the truth is.
This was one of my favorite films at AFIFest, in part because of Benesch’s strong performance, but also because it provides a wonderful sense of social commentary. This is only partly a film about the education system and its flaws. It is much more about flaws in the ways we seek scapegoats and place blame—often too quickly and with insufficient facts. It also reminds us of the harm that come from actions.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics