M, 98 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

There is no shortage of idealistic, inspiring teachers in front of rowdy, listless or hostile classrooms at the movies. They need not be young, just empathetic and enthusiastic, so they can perform minor miracles.

Another educator with this sort of potential, Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch), has recently been appointed to teach maths to seventh graders. She has useful strategies for maintaining discipline, a cooperative approach to problem-solving and enjoys her role umpiring team sports. At times, she is like a big kid herself, and a little on the outer among her colleagues in the teachers’ lounge. Benesch is such an expressive presence.

This is not, however, a contemporary German riff on old classics like To Sir, with Love or Dead Poet’s Society or the recent Freedom Writers. While the narrative builds a profile of Carla, with preliminary scenes that demonstrate her sophistication with mathematics and her support for her gifted student Oskar Kuhn (Leonard Stettnisch), something else begins to show. It is lack of experience? A disinclination to be part of the team with her faculty colleagues, and a preference for close rapport with the kids. A tendency to venture beyond her role as teacher is beginning to reveal itself.

In a tense scene near the start, it’s clear Carla objects to the offensive way a couple of colleagues determine that Ali (Can Rodenbostel) is the person responsible for a recent spate of thefts in the teachers’ common room. In the end, amid accusations of racial profiling, they are proven woefully wrong by the boy’s irate parents. After some private exchanges in Turkish, they explain that the large sum of money in their son’s wallet was for the purchase of a video game, intended as a gift.

Skilful deployment of the compelling, atmospheric musical score secures the mood

With a deft turn of the screw, tensions grow at the school with every new confrontation. Shooting in a soon-to-be-demolished building in Hamburg, cinematographer Judith Kaufmann has captured both the personalities of the characters and the sterile look of anonymous institutional spaces. The smart, nuanced script, and successful ensemble casting of inexperienced actors as the students, all contribute to the remarkable dramatic tension. But it is the very skilful deployment of the film’s compelling, atmospheric musical score that secures the mood. Composer Marvin Miller was nominated for best film music at the German film awards for his work here.

After glimpsing a fellow teacher lifting loose change from the kitty, Carla decides to take action, leaving her laptop on record with her jacket in the foreground of the screen while she supervises basketball in the gym. On return, she discovers there is money missing from the wallet she had left in one of the pockets. In the recording, vision of a blouse with a distinctive pattern appears briefly in frame. Oskar’s mother, employed in the school’s administrative area, is wearing a matching blouse with the same little, yellow stars. You would think it was a dead giveaway.

No one is safe in this volatile, convulsive world riven with claim and counterclaim

When Carla and the school principal (Anne-Kathrin Gummich) confront Friederike Kuhn with what appears to be firm evidence, she goes on the attack. This meltdown and her sudden, distressing appearance later at a parent-teacher night are so forceful it is almost enough to believe her innocence. Oskar is furious and eventually makes off with the video that appears to incriminate his mother.

No one is safe in this volatile, convulsive world riven with claim and counterclaim. The classroom and the school are a microcosm of today’s multicultural society, sometimes alarmingly fractious. Even people of good faith like Carla can become ineffectual.

We know nothing about Carla’s background except that she may have Polish ancestry. Director Ilker Catak and co-writer Johannes Duncker have kept her personal circumstances a mystery, an elision that seems to be useful when identity is such contested space.

Catak, a talented German filmmaker of Turkish background who went to school in both countries, is a filmmaker to watch, in the space that seems to have been vacated recently by Fatih Akin who burst onto the scene in 2004 with Head-On.

The drama of The Teachers’ Lounge ends in deadlock with a final scene that can be read in contradictory ways, leaving the impression that the social issues raised are largely intractable. A bit like the Rubik’s cube that features, soluble for a few, but confounding for most of us.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 April 2024.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes