On the face of it The Teachers' Lounge has a very simple premise. A young, idealistic teacher is trying to encourage her students to take interest in the subjects that she teaches, particularly mathematics. She has developed ways of keeping class order and keeps a very democratic classroom where it is the students who vote to decide, for instance, whether or not the whole class should see the grades of their friends so they know their ranking. Arguments pro and con are heard, and Frau Nowak decides that it is best if the grades information remains undisclosed, as you would expect from a person who is portrayed to live by liberal ideals which naturally include rights to privacy.
For we are in Germany, and sharing information about personal lives and identities has a fraught history. In fact, the film starts with two "class representatives" being asked to "denounce" the thief that has been operating in the school. A couple of teachers cast aspersions on a student from an immigrant background (I’ll let you guess which) and this naturally annoys Frau Nowak, who is a believer in justice, truth and reconciliation. The student’s neglectful parents are called to the school, and this makes Nowak even more uneasy. She thus decides to take matters into her own hands before any more of her dear students from different backgrounds get accused of these thefts. Beware the Good Samaritan indeed.
There are several ways this sort of story can be told and director İlker Çevik seems to have chosen to tell the story through the very face of Frau Nowak, played excellently by Leonie Benesch, a face that works as a barometer for what is happening in the school. When the camera focuses on Benesch, we do not need to see what the students are doing -- we know what the students are doing. Although the film is about an idealist teacher, there is no sentimentality in Nowak’s methods of teaching the students what is wrong and what is right, in math or in life. The school, as depicted by Çevik, is not a "homey" place. There is, in fact, a teetering sense of the unheimlich (an eerie, almost scary feeling) sustained throughout by the sound design of the film, by Kirsten Kunhardt. There is a continuous sense of suspense, of Nowak zigzagging through the halls, from the classroom to the teacher’s room, with a pace that is somehow reminiscent of Run Lola, Run. There is also the sense of children hovering around, like in Haneke’s White Ribbon, and you are always at the edge of your seat, anticipating a breakout of violence.
In order to put her plan to catch the thief to practice, Nowak needs to be vigilant and look for the right moment, and unwittingly bend some of her own privacy rules. When she collects the evidence and shares it with the school administration, she sets wheels in motion she can no longer control, and after which she spends the rest of the film trying to do damage control. At the center of the damage is a student named Oscar, who – - it is not him but someone he loves who is accused -- takes issue with the evidence provided by Nowak. From the beginning of the film he is shown to be very good at math and throws the methods of logic that his teacher has been lecturing about back at her to invalidate her claims.
Faced with these legitimate challenges we see Nowak doubt herself and her methods -- and this works as an excellent commentary on how liberals will be defeated by people with stronger convictions because they are always open to hear "the other point of view."
As the situation with Oscar escalates, Nowak doesn’t lose her belief that the thief will confess. Benesch’s face is immensely open and transparent, and you believe that when Nowak speaks, she means exactly what she says, that there are no hidden agendas and that she expects you to rise to her standards. One does wonder where she gets the energy or her conviction from. The one hint we get about her background is that she is of Polish descent, but to my mind, in her absolute sense of "Ordnung muss sein" ("order must be") she is as German as anyone, albeit with a liberal bent. When her colleague, who is also of Polish origin, speaks to her in Polish, Nowak asks that he switch to German, not because of some overarching integration concern, but because she doesn’t want colleagues to think that they are discussing something private. However, it is this sense of the private that makes her sleuthing plan and the evidence she gathers so vulnerable in the end.
The film works perfectly as a thriller, and if we must, we can also read it as a commentary on multicultural Germany, where the camera (with cinematography by
Judith Kaufmann) is turned not to the immigrants and how their lives are effected by the rules, but to the people who are in a position to implement these rules. We hear Nowak say time and again "Yes, the school took this decision but it was against my wishes" and yet she has to keep working within that system to do the damage control.
While the camera is focused on Benesch, the children playing the students provide an excellent foil, humoring her, opposing her, and towards the end, plotting against her. Especially sweet is the student Hatice who seems quite as smitten by Nowak in her idealism as I was, and yet has to be involved in the plan to get Nowak to apologize about her accusations.
Indeed, it takes two sides to play the integration and democracy game, those in power need to be held to the same standards in order to understand the other side. Çevik does an excellent job of turning the tables on the powers that be -- represented by the teachers here -- and have them answer for their behavior while those who need to be taught judge whether their efforts are adequate.
Germany, 94 minutes, 2023
Dir: İlker Çatak
Writ: Johannes Duncker, İlker Çatak
Prod: Ingo Fliess
Cinematography: Judith Kaufmann
Editor: Judith Kaufmann
Music: Marvin Miller
Cast: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch, Eva Löbau, Michael Klammer, Anne-Kathrin Gummich, Kathrin Wehlisch, Sarah Bauerett, Rafael Stachowiak, Uygar Tamer, Özgür Karadeniz
Photo by © Alamode Film, courtesy of the Berlinale and used with permission.