A pervasive distrust has infiltrated a German middle school in Ilker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge, roiling both the students and the faculty. Insinuations fly freely, along with paranoia, accusations of discrimination, and suspension of due process. Rumors are wielded like weapons against the staff and the children. Yet the cosmic joke at the center of the film is how much the consternation is motivated not by malice, but rather commonplace misunderstandings, unhelpful school policies and a seemingly misplaced desire (to quote Ozzie Davis’ da Mayor) to “do the right thing.” A cringe-inducing hellscape of microaggressions and squirmy confrontations awaits a naïve young teacher when she attempts to discreetly defuse an awkward situation, only for it to snowball to the point she becomes a pariah within the school. It all plays a little like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, only if someone had mercilessly gone through it and excised all of the humor.
Befitting its title, The Teachers’ Lounge is narrowly focused on interactions between teachers and students, as well as the tetchy interoffice politics of working with strong personalities. In a bit of scene-setting that establishes the tone for the entire film, new hire Cara Nowak (Leonie Benesch) is thrust into an investigation of allegedly stolen money where the perpetrator is believed to be one of the boys in her classroom. While Cara pleads for a measured response, including simply dropping the matter, her colleagues cite the school’s “zero tolerance” stance on infractions which allows them to run roughshod over civil liberties, including leaning on her students to snitch on the guilty party. When the investigation points toward a young Arab boy, Cara instinctively falls into the role of advocate, torn between the lack of concrete evidence and the disquieting appearance of targeting a minority child and circumstantial indications that the child is guilty of something. It’s a dynamic she also experiences firsthand within the “sanctity” of the faculty lounge. After witnessing the sticky-fingered behavior of staff — and perhaps wanting to exonerate her student — Cara sets a trap for her coworkers: leaving her wallet in her coat pocket while out of the room, her laptop camera surreptitiously recording the whole time. Her suspicions are confirmed when she returns to her billfold being several euros lighter than when she left it. Inconveniently, the perpetrator’s face wasn’t captured on camera, only the very auspicious sleeve of a gaudy-looking blouse.
The blouse very likely belongs to Mrs. Kuhn (Eva Löbau), the frazzled yet affable office manager who, even when confronted with (damning but far from definitive) proof of her transgression, is defiant, loudly refuting the accusation. After all, why would she risk her career and reputation to take but a few euros? Her indignation is enough for Cara to question the trustworthiness of the evidence as well as her own motives, but, then again, Mrs. Kuhn’s claims of innocence sound no different than the student Cara caught cheating on a test; if one would dare tell a bald-faced lie even when caught red-handed, surely the other could have as well. The situation escalates when the case is brought in front of administrators, resulting in Mrs. Kuhn’s suspension from work, but the matter is far from resolved. Cara’s coworkers now view her with skepticism: why was she recording them without their permission, and what of their rights to privacy? Further complicating things, Mrs. Kuhn’s son Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch) is a student in Cara’s class, and in the absence of forthright answers — an unfortunate side effect of trying to keep the investigation internal and not further dragging someone’s name through the mud — the boy becomes a loud and disruptive advocate for his mother. A narrative takes hold amongst the student body and their parents. What sort of kangaroo court is this school running anyway, and why is Cara always at the center of all this drama?
The Teachers’ Lounge calls to mind Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster (currently in theaters) in that it finds a well-intentioned teacher vilified by a mob of parents, students, and faculty through a concerted effort to tag them as an overreaching tyrant. Yet this film succeeds where the Kore-eda falters by recognizing, to a certain extent, that Cara is complicit in her fate. The character becomes an avatar of ineffectual liberalism, inserting herself into circumstances out of righteousness or sheer do-gooderism when simply keeping her head down and allowing the status quo to remain in place would have almost certainly pacified the situation. The extent to which Cara invites confrontation — not only does she orchestrate the sting operation, but she pointedly moves her wallet from her purse to her jacket to bait the trap — or clings to outmoded norms paints the character as obstinate as much as it does principled. Çatak’s direction walks a tricky line between acknowledging Cara’s beliefs as admirable and reflecting a genuine desire to bring about change in the world while also recognizing the extent to which the character’s fitting herself for a martyr’s crown.
This all transpires against a training wheels version of authoritarianism: teachers turning out pockets based on little more than vague suspicions, witnesses being strong armed into speaking against their classmates, and, in a particularly misguided effort with unmissable echoes of the real world, attempts to shut down the press when the school’s student newspaper writes a splashy exposé about the entire Nowak-Kuhn affair after Cara sits for an ill-advised interview. The classrooms become a battleground of stonewalling and ineffectual threats, laying bare how toothless they are against a unified front of protest (groups of synchronized tweens are rarely this unnerving outside of horror movies). Çatak treats the mounting indignities like a pressure cooker without a release valve, shooting in a claustrophobic-feeling, boxy aspect ratio with roving, slightly jittery handheld camerawork that finds Cara brusquely traversing the school’s hallways. The film risks exaggerating a fundamentally modest dust-up into something outsized or credibility-stretching, particularly as Oskar appears to single-handedly poison the entire school against Cara. However, Benesch’s perfectly modulated performance helps ground the film, threading the needle between wounded idealist and pigheaded agitator. In Çatak’s telling, there is no shortage of blame to go around, with all parties becoming increasingly entrenched in their position. Righteousness and indignation have blinded all of these characters to the fact that there has to be a better way forward than this.
DIRECTOR: Ilker Çatak; CAST: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch, Eva Löbau, Michael Klammer; DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures Classics; IN THEATERS: December 25; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 34 min.