The Teachers’ Lounge (2023)

‘Teachers’ Lounge’ Is an education in tyranny

In “The Teachers’ Lounge,” fascism emerges alive and well in, of all places, a German elementary school. That’s where Teutonic writer-director Ilker Catak takes to task his nation’s troubling shift toward the far right by employing a class of sixth-graders and their novice teacher as a microcosm for how easy it is for democracy to succumb to suspicion and distrust.

It proves effective in that Catak wages his crusade in a subtle, non-preachy manner, enlisting adorable children to illustrate the ugliness of tyranny. It’s a clever device for establishing his theory that hatred is absorbed osmotically through the alleged adults in the room. In this case, a faculty so afraid of violating a student’s “safe space” that it resorts to authoritarian tactics in the name of the greater good.

The hypocrisy is off the charts as pupils are coerced into naming names, subjected to illegal search and seizure and publicly humiliated by baseless allegations. The rampant finger-pointing even extends as far as the school’s office, as a series of petty thefts have sparked an escalating inquisition. The irony is that the chief instigator in this air of growing mistrust is the school’s idyllic rookie math/gym teacher, Carla Nowak.

As portrayed by Leonie Benesch, Carla is the epitome of the proverbial “Karen,” a do-gooder who feels the need to right every perceived wrong she witnesses. Because she’s new, she initially keeps her mouth shut, even after spotting a colleague raiding the coffee kitty. But there comes a point when her inner Nancy Drew surfaces, compelling her to circumvent the rules and set a trap to catch the serial thief via a hidden camera. How East German of her!

Sure enough, a suspect takes the bait. But the only identifying feature is the sleeve of a garish blouse reaching for Carla’s wallet. Is that enough to convict, especially for an instructor who instills in her students that unprovable assumptions have no place in mathematics? You bet it is, and thus a hornet’s nest is ripped open, as both students and faculty turn on each other. Even the Fox News-ish student newspaper accelerates the chaos via a gotcha interview with Carla.

The premise is clever, perhaps at times too clever, but I love the way Catak and his co-writer, Johannes Duncker, mold their parable into a highly effective thriller enhanced by Marvin Miller’s jittery five-note score. It unnerves you, much like the fraught situation she created gnaws at Carla. Not only has she lost control of the narrative, but she’s on the verge of relinquishing her grip on sanity.

Benesch proves the perfect casting choice, as her fresh-faced wholesomeness belies a woman who never knows when to stop, as her idealism digs her deeper into a hole that’s not just going to swallow her, but also her prized student, Oskar (a marvelously expressive Leonard Stettnisch), whose mother (Eva Lӧbau) is the chief suspect in Carla’s illicit sting operation.

Just like the devil has the power to assume a pleasing shape, Carla is in many ways a totalitarian in disguise, from her secret recordings to her ratting out colleagues without definitive proof. She’s such a “good guy” that you allow yourself to overlook her unscrupulous tactics. And that’s Catak’s message, that people as seemingly sweet and upstanding as Carla are the people we should fear the most. They should not be above scrutiny, especially when they are as surreptitious as Carla. For example, why is she so adamant about concealing her Polish heritage? And why does she so easily crack under pressure, as she does while undergoing intense questioning during a parent-teacher night?

“The Teachers’ Lounge” is brimming with such queries, not the least of which is whether or not Oskar’s mother is indeed guilty. Intriguingly, Catak leaves it to us to pass all judgment. But he’s just as quick to caution us to be thoughtful in shaping our perceptions. For there are no certainties in suppositions, only assumptions. And as Carla learns the hard way, perhaps we should keep such thoughts and prejudices to ourselves. Or, better yet, dispense with them altogether.

Movie review

The Teachers’ Lounge

Rated: PG-13 for some strong language

Cast: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch and Eva Lӧbau

Director: Ilker Catak

Writers: Ilker Catak and Johannes Duncker

Runtime: 95 minutes

Grade: A-

Leave a Reply