The Teachers’ Lounge – Review

The Teachers Lounge This review contains spoilers

At school, it did always seem like the teachers’ lounge was a place of mystery. Only if you were handing something in or waiting to speak to someone did you catch a glimpse of what was going on inside. And, even though it was usually just some colleagues having lunch or catching up on corrections, it maintained the air of somewhere special; adult.

Ilker Çatak’s film, The Teachers’ Lounge, casts the space as something altogether different. It is a room full of divisions and suspicions. There has been a spate of thefts in the school – everything from money lifted out of wallets to a box of one thousand pencils has disappeared. When substitute teacher, Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) decides to set a trap to catch the thief, she not only does so but unwittingly unleashes bigger rifts with bigger consequences. Alternating largely between the lounge in question and Nowak’s classroom, this single location drama heaps on the tension until the very last seconds.

The film quickly establishes Nowak as being “other”. She is not a regular on the staff and is often spoken to with a condescending exhale or eye roll from those who work at the school full time. Her advocacy for her students when initial attempts to snare the thief are met with resistance from more established colleagues. We learn that she is Polish and she often reminds a compatriot colleague that they must speak in German in order to blend in. She doesn’t quite have the grip on her class that she would like to – despite her pleasant cajoling and willingness to see their viewpoint.

So, already, we have a protagonist who is uneasy in her skin, meaning that we can’t ever quite settle down with this film. And writer / director Ilker Çatak simply ramps up the tension from this point. When office administrator Friederike Kühn (Eva Löbau) is accused of taking money from Nowak’s wallet, her son Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch) becomes the pupil from hell. It is this stand off – between teacher and pupil, not accuser and accused – that is at the heart of this film.

Marvin Miller’s score does not permit for any breathers, either. There are lots of jagged, staccato keys; deep and sharp strikes of a cello; spiralling violins. It’s like having a ragged heartbeat throb in your ear for the best part of two hours. It’s magnificently done.

The performances are also excellent. Leonie Benesch seems like a walking bag of nerves from start to finish – always tugging at stray hairs or clenching her elbows with her fists. Even when she is attempting to be free and happy with the children, she appears to be constantly scanning the room for trouble. Playing against her is Leonard Stettnisch, making his debut as the thoroughly frustrating Oskar. His silent, dead-eyed stare; his wilful little smirk; his ability to get his classmates to do his bidding. He’s fighting his mother’s battle and, for the most part, it looks like the diminutive dictator just might win.

The Teachers Lounge The single location really helps amplify the tensions as well. We don’t see – nor do we need to – anything of anyone’s home life. It is all about the school campus and how it stands as a microcosm for wider society. There are claims of racism; cheating; theft; censorship; abuse of power; mistrust. Çatak is, perhaps, holding up a mirror and asking us what the hell we are teaching our children.

When it comes to the third act, The Teachers’ Lounge doesn’t deliver quite as gripping or outrageous (or perhaps violent) finale as you may suspect. Certainly, as Oskar’s behaviour escalates, it does seem like the film is only going to conclude in one way, only for Çatak to throw a softer curveball. This does diminish the heightened sense of anxiety he has kept us in but perhaps delivers the exhale of relief that we, as viewers, absolutely need by this point.

The Teachers’ Lounge is Germany’s entry for this year’s Oscar’s ceremony (up against the likes of Io Capitano, another film festival treat) and it’s clear to see why it has been so warmly received. It showcases how one small act can have enormous consequences, whilst opening up the universal classroom to inspection.

A thrillingly tense watch, with a frustratingly vague conclusion, Ilker Çatak’s fourth feature length film is absolutely worth shredding your nerves for.

The Teachers’ Lounge is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival. Get your tickets here.


Mary Munoz
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