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No Easy Answers: On the Power of The Teachers' Lounge

The German film “The Teachers’ Lounge,” which was recently nominated for Best International Film Oscar and played this year's Ebertfest, is a riveting school drama about how one seemingly simple matter becomes quite complicated for everyone involved. No matter much how its good-willed heroine tries for resolving this increasingly tricky situation, things keep getting messier thanks to not only others but also herself, and we come to brace ourselves tension and pressure grows around her.

At the beginning, the movie gradually lets us know of an ongoing circumstance inside one school. There have been a series of thefts, and Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch), a young teacher who was recently employed there, and two other teachers have a little private meeting with two students who might give any information on whoever is behind them. Not long after that, Carla’s male students suddenly get their possessions examined in the middle of their lesson, and then one of these male students comes to draw attention just because of having a substantial amount of money in his possession. However, this student in question explains where that money comes from, and his parents, who are immigrants, confirm their son’s claim later.

As the school is disturbed by more concern and suspicion, Carla decides to take care of the problem for herself. She sets up a little trap for the culprit at the teachers’ lounge, and what do you know, her laptop video camera captures another incident of theft during her absence, though the identity of the culprit remains unknown.

Just because of a little detail shown from the video clip, Carla comes to suspect one of the teachers in the school, who vehemently denies everything when she is confronted by Carla. After that, Carla decides to report to the principal, who promptly takes an action which ignites a chain reaction of unpleasant happenings. It initially seems that the matter will be resolved sooner or later, but, unfortunately, the actions of Carla and several others around her are followed by the serious consequences beyond their control, which also lead to more problems and headaches for everyone.

One of these consequent problems is how the proceedings impact the dynamic with the son of that suspected teacher, who happens to be one of the smarter students in Carla’s classroom. Strongly believing in his mother’s innocence, he embarks on a campaign against his teacher. As a result, Carla cannot help but become more exasperated even while trying to maintain her appearance and authority in front of her students, many of whom come to regard her with more anger and defiance. No matter how much she tries to get things under control, things only get worse and worse in her classroom, and she even finds herself not getting much help or support from many of her fellow teachers.

Steadily dialing up the level of tension on the screen, director İlker Çatak, who also wrote the screenplay with Johannes Duncker, keeps the story and characters rolling under his skillful direction. Shot in the screen ratio of 1.33:1 by cinematographer Judith Kaufmann, the movie effectively builds up the sense of suffocation around its heroine, closely sticking to its heroine’s viewpoint, and we are not so surprised when Carla is eventually driven up to the point where she really needs any kind of mental ventilation. The score by Marvin Miller often feels jarring with deliberate discord, and we get more unnerved whenever Miller’s score subtly announces something to happen sooner or later. While Carla’s viewpoint is its main focus, the movie wisely does not vilify any of its main characters, and we come to understand and emphasize more with not only Carla but also several other main characters in the story, even while watching how they often make the situation worse in one way or another.

The movie is anchored by the strong performance of its lead performer. Leonie Benesch, a German actress who started her movie acting career in Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” (2009), subtly conveys to us the accumulating stress and frustration behind her character’s doggedly patient attitude, and she is especially fantastic when her character belatedly comes to realize her big error late in the story. I must confess that, even after the second viewing, I am not entirely sure about whether this moment, which is involved with that little glaring detail in her video clip, is actually real or imagined. Nevertheless, Benesch is simply devastating as her character is reminded more of the growing trouble inadvertently caused by her.

As for the other adult main cast members of the film, Michael Klammer, Rafael Stachowiak, Anne-Kathrin Gummich, and Eva Löbau are solid as several other teachers around Carla. In addition, a bunch of young performers in the film including Leonard Stettnisch are terrific. The natural performances from the kids work well as the effective counterparts to Benesch’s professional acting, and that is particularly evident during one tense scene where Carla comes to face the growing distance between her and her students later in the story.

On the whole, “The Teachers’ Lounge” is often tough to watch, but it holds our attention thanks to its deft storytelling and convincing performances. While nothing is certain for everyone even at the end of the story, there is some possibility for hope and harmony as suggested by what is played so harmoniously on the soundtrack during the end credits. We can only wish the best for all of them.

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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