The Teachers' Lounge


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Teacher's Lounge
"Thrums from start to almost finish with the sweaty tension of a looming maths test." | Photo: Judith Kaufmann/Alamode Film

The title might suggest somewhere to relax but there’s barely room to breathe in Ilker Çatak’s German school-set drama which thrums from start to almost finish with the sweaty tension of a looming maths test. At its heart - and following a quickening beat, heightened by the plucked strings of Marvin Miller’s insistent score - is new teacher Carla Nowack (Leonie Benesch).

Nowack takes the kids for maths and PE but she soon finds it's the school ethics - and maybe even her own - that don’t add up. Çatak and his co-writer Johannes Duncker present the world within the school as a distilled microcosm of what lies outside it, complete with all its adult prejudices - joining a recent cohort of films on a similar subject, including 1982, Playground and Blue Jean. The first signs of conflict brew over a series of thefts. The school’s zero tolerance policy comes into play as the kids are asked to show their wallets. There’s no obligation to, they’re told, although it's clear that anyone who doesn’t will immediately fall under suspicion. When a Turkish kid is found to have a wodge of cash, the implications are clear and lasting, even though there turns out to be an innocent explanation.

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Nowack is spurred by that injustice to take matters into her own hands in a bid to catch the thief, although her methods are morally dubious - and the outcome just ambivalent enough to cause problems. Suspicion falls on a member of staff as a result, a situation immediately complicated by the fact they have a child (Leonard Stettnisch) at the school, who, because this is fiction not documentary, also happens to be a maths whizz.

There’s a palpable sense of not fitting in and the pressure to do so. Nowack is struggling to find a groove with her colleagues not just because she’s new but also because she’s from a different region of the country. Çatak and Duncker don’t overplay this, leaving it, like the situation with the accused kid, to hang in the air. As the debate around Nowack’s sleuthing starts to grow, she finds herself in increasingly uncomfortable territory, not just with her colleagues but with the parents of the other children and the children themselves. Benesch - who was one of this year’s Berlinale shooting stars, a programme that celebrates up and coming talent - lets the tension flood through her body language. Beyond Miller’s score, her increasingly stressful situation is also emphasised by the costuming from Christian Röhrs, which sees Nowack acquire a tight neck scarf part way that serves to make her character feel further constricted.

Although there’s a moment Çatak threatens to push things too far - taking us briefly into Nowack’s headspace, which is out of place with the more sustained casual pressures being brought to bear elsewhere - the film in general amplifies its ambiguities to unsettling proportions. In the end, it’s the culture not the people who are really the problem as we see a system that seeks to apportion blame without due process really benefits nobody. Meanwhile we watch Nowack walk down a road carefully paved with her good intentions to a hell she’s inadvertently fueled.

Reviewed on: 22 Mar 2023
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When one of her students is suspected of theft, teacher Carla Nowak decides to get to the bottom of the matter. Caught between her ideals and the school system, the consequences of her actions threaten to break her.

Director: İlker Çatak

Writer: İlker Çatak

Starring: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch, Eva Löbau, Michael Klammer, Anne-Kathrin Gummich

Year: 2023

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Germany

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