The Teachers’ Lounge

Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch, "The White Ribbon," "Persian Lessons") has just begun teaching in a German middle school when she feels obligated to defend her students against the school’s invasive policies, squirming as colleagues Thomas Liebenwerda (Michael Klammer) and Milosz Dudek (Rafael Stachowiak, "Undine") ask students Lukas and Jenny to turn in classmates who they suspect in recent thefts.  Later, observing suspicious actions by an adult, Carla’s eagerness to right a wrong creates a domino effect that turns everyone against her in “The Teachers' Lounge.”

Laura's Review: A-

Cowriter (with Johannes Duncker)/director Ilker Çatak’s brilliant screenplay demonstrates how an atmosphere of mistrust degrades society using a microcosm of one middle school.  Featuring a hugely sympathetic performance by Benesch, whose compassion remains against incredible odds, “The Teachers' Lounge” is an entertaining and thought provoking behavioral study relevant to many issues we face today.

Carla appears to have great rapport with her seventh graders, so she is unsettled once again when a colleague accompanied by school principal Dr. Böhm (Anne-Kathrin Gummich, "The White Ribbon") interrupts her class asking the girls to leave and the boys to hand over their wallets for a search.  Just like the first interrogation, her protestations are met with bland assurances that nothing is mandatory, although Böhm trots out the old ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ argument.  When a wallet stuffed with cash is found on a chair, its owner is identified as Ali (Can Rodenbostel), but when his parents are called, Mr. and Ms. Yilmaz (Özgür Karadeniz and Uygar Tamer) are rightfully indignant, saying that the money was given to him to purchase a gift and that carrying cash is not a crime.  The boy’s innocence doesn’t matter to his classmates though – as an immigrant, something he has in common with the Polish Carla – he is already suspect (twice Çatak has one foreign language speaker caution another to switch to German in an attempt to keep the playing field level).

Angered by the school’s Gestapo tactics, Carla watches another teacher surreptitiously help herself to petty change from the coffee fund in the teachers' lounge and, thinking she may have found the culprit, decides to set a trap, setting her laptop to record while leaving money in the inside pocket of the jacket hanging over the chair facing it.  What she comes back to appears to be indisputable circumstantial evidence, but instead of pointing towards the coffee fund thief, it fingers the distinctly star patterned blouse of school administrator Friederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau), who just happens to be the mother of Carla’s prize pupil Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch).   

Dismayed that the cheerful, helpful woman appears to be the thief, Carla takes matters into her own hands, but Frau Kuhn adamantly denies any wrongdoing, so Carla marches off with her laptop to the office of the woman who’s allowed this unhealthy atmosphere to fester.  Dr. Böhm mismanages the situation once again while Carla’s Polish ally, Dudek, informs her that she’s violated the rights of everyone in the lounge by making the recording.  Kuhn hauls her son out of school, refusing to talk further to anyone.  The next day, Oskar demands to know what his mother has been accused of and the situation continues to spiral as rumors ricochet around the hallways and a parents’ chat group.  Carla will be forced to leave her own parent teacher meeting to huff into a paper bag in the ladies room, then finds herself siding with school authorities censoring the school newspaper all while trying to keep her class, and Oskar in particular, on an even keel.  Çatak concludes with a startlingly combination of détente and rebellion.

Çatak ratchets up the tension masterfully by plunging us into a sketchy situation where it is all too easy to side with the protagonist before nudging her off a very slippery slope.  Leonie Benesch is perfectly cast as the idealistic young teacher who encourages kids to think through complex problems, succeeding in the classroom, but frustrated outside of it.  It is a testament to her performance that we take it personally when her class fails to give her the benefit of the doubt, only school councilor Lore Semnik (Kathrin Wehlisch, "Phoenix") ultimately proving an ally while  Liebenwerda’s pal, Sarah Bauerett’s Vanessa, is the adult version of a mean girl.  Löbau expresses Kuhn’s victimization so convincingly, she keeps us all off balance.

Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann (“Corsage”) focuses attention by using the boxy, increasingly popular academy ratio, apt framing for limited perspectives, yet still creates space in two critical scenes featuring a bridge, one an interior glass walkway, the other spanning a river.  Composer Marvin Miller veers from the spare use of plucked strings to a fully orchestral score.           

“The Teachers' Lounge” is Germany’s shortlisted submission for the 2024 International Oscar.

Robin's Review: B+

Sony Pictures Classics released "The Teachers' Lounge" in NY and LA on 12/25/23, expanding into additional theaters in January, 2024.