(The Middleburg Film Festival runs October 19-22, 2023 in Middleburg, Virginia. HtN Lead Critic Chris Reed will be proving his usual excellent coverage like this movie review of The Teachers’ Lounge. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
In his latest film, The Teachers’ Lounge, German director Ilker Çatak (Blurred Lines) crafts a harrowing emotional thriller set in a secondary school. Not since Laurent Cantet’s 2008 The Class have we seen a movie tackle classroom politics in quite such a direct and moving fashion. Filled with powerful performances—many from the child actors—this searing drama of connection forged through betrayal holds us in its thrall from the very first scene.
Much of that pull is due to lead actress Leonie Benesch (Persian Lessons), who plays teacher Carla Nowak, a relative newcomer to the school (in fact, her last name means “newcomer”). She’s also of Polish origin, something she’d rather not be overt about. As nice as her colleagues may be, we soon see that, like most humans, they are wary of outsiders and commit some faux pas around their immigrant students.
There is a sense of order and how things should be done, and Carla finds herself immediately at odds with the principal and a more senior teacher as, right at the story’s start, they investigate a series of thefts. Frustrated at their inability to make headway, everyone but Carla chooses to put pressure on the middle-school class reps to denounce who they think might be doing it. Incredulous, Carla tries to voice her objection to these tactics. No one pays her any heed.
What we see of Carla in these early moments reveals a pedagogue deeply committed to meeting her students where they each, individually, are. Some might be more gifted than others in certain subjects, but she does her best to lift everyone to a higher level of achievement. She’s the kind of teacher we all wish we had when young, or, if we’re in education, that we could be or become one day.
Unfortunately, events related to the thefts (of money and other items) will soon spiral out of control. Carla begins to suspect that the responsible party is not a student, and the actions she takes to prove this eventually muddy the already troubled waters. The trust she has built up with her students will be tested, and one of her favorites (not that she tries to show favorites) will turn against her. To say nothing of the chaos she sows in the teachers’ lounge.
Çatak, who also co-wrote the screenplay, deftly builds suspense through even the most ostensibly mundane interactions. Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann (Corsage), working within the tight vertical confines of the classic Academy ratio, produces images that reinforce the visual metaphor of walls closing in on Carla. Composer Marvin Miller (Balloon) raises the pressure with a brilliant score, underlining Carla’s distress without overwhelming it.
By the time matters come to an explosive head, we ourselves are so fully committed to the journey that it’s hard to draw a breath. We’ve almost forgotten the opening focus on Carla’s pedagogical mission. But Çatak skillfully brings the narrative back full circle, allowing Carla the opportunity to solve the seemingly unsolvable dilemma (no wonder a Rubik’s plays a central role). He’s aided in this by his own strong script and the marvelous cast. Benesch and the rest give it their all, and we are the lucky beneficiaries.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
2023 Middleburg Film Festival; Ilker Çatak; The Teachers’ Lounge movie review