THE STORY – Teacher Carla Nowak decides to get involved when one of her students is suspected of theft. Caught between her ideals and the school system, the consequences of her actions threaten to break her.
THE CAST – Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettinisch, Eva Löbau & Michael Klammer
THE TEAM – Ilker Çatak (Director/Writer) & Johannes Duncker (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
When we think of school, we think of it as a place for our youth to mold themselves, to gain knowledge and experience, and to prepare them for the real world. It’s a place where social skills begin to develop, making it one of the first instances of continuous interaction with others. Sure, that’s not always how it plays out for everyone, but there’s hopeful naivety that primary school is a formative experience for students and teachers alike. That isn’t the case in Ilker Çatak’s “The Teacher’s Lounge.” A haven for schooling becomes a nightmare in this German film. Not only is it a riveting depiction of a school turned upside down, but it is also a great character study of how doing the right thing can sometimes lead to the worst thing.
“The Teachers’ Lounge” follows Carla Novak (played by Leonie Benesch), the ideal middle school teacher. She is compassionate, attentive, and always looks to do right by her students. As the school becomes plagued with multiple instances of theft, Carla attempts to discover the thief on her own to help put the situation to bed. Carla’s good intentions only lead to a scandal that upheaves the school’s entire social and power dynamics. Carla now has to manage to control her class as her students and the faculty begin to turn on her.
“The Teachers’ Lounge” is an outstanding sophomore showcase for filmmaker Ilker Çatak. Where the subject of the film could’ve played out as a very traditional drama, Çatak instead frames the film like an anxiety-inducing thriller. The way he wrings out the tension between the characters around this scandal is impressive, as it constantly gets more excruciating to experience the longer it goes on.
It also helps when you have a magnificent lead performance from someone as wonderful as Benesch. The character of Carla is so well developed. She’s an incredibly earnest and kind teacher who only tries to do what is honorable. Audiences watch as Carla’s warm and pleasant presence slowly morphs into an anxiety-riddled existence. Benesch conveys so much with her expressions alone. Watching her interact with the kids is joyful at first. Then, it starts to feel like seeing a car crash in real-time that you can not look away from. It’s sad to witness, and Benesch completely shows how unbearable the escalating situation is. While Benesch is the film’s sole focus, Leonard Stettnisch as Oskar (one of the students embroiled in the controversy) is also quite outstanding. Most child actors get flack for their work, but Stettnisch does a lot for what little he is given to do, making the dynamic between Carla and Oskar easily the most fascinating relationship explored in the film.
The screenplay by Çatak and Johannes Duncker is very well structured and razor-sharp. On the surface, “The Teachers’ Lounge” is a suspenseful film that envelops the audience. Still, beneath that, it focuses on the biases people carry and how they affect our perception of one another. From a non-teacher’s perspective, there’s little thought to how fragile the power dynamics between a teacher and student is. It’s always established then that when kids are in school, for the most part, they are at the behest of the teacher, who is usually their elder to a degree. The character of Carla, being relatively young, plays so much in this delicate dynamic. She’s new to this school and wants to appeal to these adolescents in some way. She engages the students to vote on certain disagreements and even volunteers to help be interviewed for the school’s student-run newspaper. Seeing how students can use their influence against the teachers in a negative manner is quite horrifying, especially one as lovely as Carla. It’s also ironic to consider these teachers’ elders to a degree, as they harass her in almost the same manner when interrogating her about the scandal. For people in entirely separate age ranges and social structures, their behavior is sometimes indiscernible.
One of the film’s biggest strengths, along with the screenplay, is the incredibly precise editing by Gesa Jäeger. For its brief ninety-eight-minute runtime, the film is paced efficiently. There’s not much that doesn’t feel essential to the plot, and its commitment to help stretch the tension to the end works in the film’s favor.
The one issue that holds “The Teachers’ Lounge” back is how the story ultimately ends. It successfully builds this unbearable dread throughout its quick runtime, but the payoff doesn’t align with what was established before it by the time it reaches its somewhat tender conclusion. Although this entire conflict is minimal in scale, it has significant ramifications for these characters, which ultimately feels like it’s wrapped up a bit too conveniently. The compassionate ending is watered down by how it continues after it, including the final shot in the film. Despite the unsatisfying ending, everything that comes before is so good it’s easy to look past its flaws, and few films are as enthralling this year as “The Teachers’ Lounge.”