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Reviews of the Lab Young Critics

The Teachers' Lounge

by Aurelia Aasa

Schoolteachers' working conditions – low salaries, heavy workload and high levels of stress– have been the topic of conversation globally for some time. According to Germany's Oscar contender, Ilker Çatak's The Teacher's Lounge, competing this week at the 15th Les Arcs Film Festival, these problems also seem to loom in the German educational system. 

Carla Nowak, played brilliantly by Leonie Benesch (known as the sister of Prince Philip, Princess Cecilie of Greece and Denmark in Netflix’s The Crown), is a young sports and math teacher who seems like the perfect role model for seventh-graders. Devoted, caring, and kind, her idealistic nature takes a hit when a student is falsely accused of theft. Determined to find the real culprit, Carla sets up a secret video camera. However, the teacher's well-intentioned actions unleash a storm, turning her into an unexpected target. Soon, everyone's favourite teacher becomes a villain who finds herself vilified in the school’s newspaper, parents' WhatsApp group and even the otherwise uneventful teachers' lounge.  

This particular location, or the school environment for that matter, may not initially strike one as the most captivating film setting. After all, haven't we explored it all, from classic American high school comedies (e.g. Mean Girls) to Radu Jude's Berlinale Golden Bear winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn? Çatak's feature navigates familiar terrain, viewing the educational setting as a microcosm of society in the post-truth era, where the one who screams the loudest holds the upper hand. If there’s one thing that the director skilfully captures, it’s that people always need someone to blame. 

The Teachers' Lounge offers several memorable scenes, one of the most cathartic being the moment when Ms. Novak stands in front of the class before the lesson and declares, "Get up." Urging the children, she insists, "I want all of us to scream as loud as we can." Instead of the typical, light-hearted clapping ritual that they usually start the class with, a collective scream follows. A series of emotional breakdowns set against the schoolhouse’s greyish colour palette (by set designer Zazie Knepper) create a powerful contrast, stressing the solitude of school’s unforgiving environment. This is underlined by the costume design (courtesy of Christian Röhrs, who was also behind another German festival hit, Thomas Stuber's In the Aisles): Carla's favourite clothing pieces are a dark blue polo neck, chestnut-coloured corduroy pants and woollen vests, emphasizing the teacher's uncomplicated and kind nature. 

The Teacher’s Lounge delves into themes of power, truth, and, most importantly, empathy. If it lacks anything, it's humour and (self-) irony that would potentially make the overwhelming situations more bearable. Occasionally, one finds themself yearning for more kindness, and while there are a few instances of warmth – hugs or a few kind words – the film's created world can at times feel hopeless. Nonetheless, it is a thrilling social drama which particularly benefits from expert editing by Gesa Jäger, taking the viewer on a thought-provoking journey within the school walls. It stands as yet another compelling example of modern German cinema. 

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