The Teachers’ Lounge (2023) Berlinale Review: When Ms. Nowak is interviewing for the school newspaper and asked about the differences in opinions among the staff members, she remarks, “What happens in the teacher’s lounge stays in the teacher’s lounge.” İlker Çatak’s German drama, The Teacher’s Lounge – turns the idealism of this new teacher headlong.
It, in fact, goes ahead to establish how the inability to contain the incidents in a teacher’s lounge within its confines can lead to hostility among the staff and the parents and solidarity among the students against the institution. This film commands your rapt attention and can simultaneously be an anxiety-inducing experience. It effectively plays out as an important social drama that calls into question the fundamentals of educational institutions’ effectiveness in a morally dubious scenario.
Carla Nowak (played by Leonie Benesch) is an idealistic and fairly new teacher at a middle school that prides itself on its “zero-tolerance policy.” Unfortunately, there has been a series of thefts, and the authorities are trying their best to figure out who the culprit is. The film opens with the administration questioning (rather, coercing) two representatives from Ms. Nowak’s class about their suspicion regarding any of their classmates and proceeds to conduct an uncalled-for investigation into the students’ purses later that day, picking out Ali for carrying a lumpsum amount to the school.
Ms. Nowak, the class teacher, does her best to stop these proceedings, but she can raise her voice only so much in the hierarchy of power structures that govern the school administration. Afterward, she realizes that some money is missing from her purse. Fortunately, there is a video recording of the possible perpetrator on her laptop.
After confronting the alleged thief, Ms. Nowak finds herself trying to navigate the questioning gaze of her students, opinionated colleagues, and outraged parents without breaking down under the duress of the situation. Çatak heightens the tension and refuses to let you look away from the screen while pitting the challenges of being an idealist educator against the bitter truths of reality.
Benesch is spellbinding in her portrayal of Ms. Nowak. The calmness with which she conducts herself around her students during the most outrageous attacks against her gives her character a bend of resilience that I have rarely seen before. A new-age educator, the way she associates with her students – from picking out someone cheating on a test and expelling someone who bullies another student to trying to hold a conversation with defaulters after the class – has an underlying sense of empathy and kindness. In fact, she is constantly trying to safeguard her students against any trouble.
Ms. Nowak’s reactions to the unbecoming incidents at school only allow her face to tense up. Thankfully, the camera swoons around her to capture her silent plight throughout the film, even when she storms out of her classroom during a parent-teacher meeting. What is more fascinating to watch is how Çatak develops the nuance of the situations presented in this drama, helping to bring out the otherwise conservative core even in the most liberal spaces.
When Ali is interrogated about the possession of a large sum of money within school premises, it is rightly pointed out later that singling him out for the accusation of theft shows the school’s bias against the Asian immigrant family. When Ms. Nowak tries to hint at the same to a few teachers, they casually brush off the idea as if it was impossible for the school to engage in such an offense.
The Head’s constant repetition of the “zero tolerance policy” in their institution starts to appear like a hollow sham by the end when the school administration decides to pull away the latest issue of the school newspaper for its derogatory content against the staff of the school. The Teacher’s Lounge quickly gets to the crux of the matter and builds upon the controversy to its breaking point, leaving us to wonder how things were put to rest in the end. The close-ups, quickly shifting focal points in a frame, sounds emanating from natural sources, etc., help mount the tension perfectly in this drama. It doesn’t succumb to the greyness of every day politics but builds on it like Tar (2022) to help us better introspect the reality.