One of the smartest, most satisfying films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, Ilker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge uses a German school as a mirror to a conflicting society, one whose moral standards are at clash with underlying values, prejudices and deeply rooted convictions. Set to represent Germany at this year’s Best International Feature Film Oscar race, the film manages to be both metaphorical and engaging, delivering a dual-layered story that has a lot to say on how fragile entire democracies can be.
The film’s framing device is brilliant, taking a Farhadi-esque approach where one small incident, which might seem trivial at first, results in a series of consequences that truly reveal the faults of a school and social system that always prides itself on being righteous. A school that adopts a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy that, while theoretically is noble, ambitious and well-meaning, is in fact almost impossible to implement, setting its sight an easier-said-than-done goal that as soon as being put to action reveals more about the policymaker’s inherent issues than its own mechanics at play.
Using a school as a metaphor for German society in which there are many colliding forces at play, the film never wastes a moment, leaving out more details than it displays on screen, letting us piece things together and make our own judgment instead of spoon-feeding us the answers. Part who-dunnit, part a vibrant socio-drama, Ilker Çatak is clearly not interested in creating something that simply moves or impresses audiences. He is inviting us to ponder, reflect and draw our own conclusions as we watch the dominos falling, gradually and remarkably, because of – and not despite – a seemingly politically correct, democratically-proud system that seems so sure at first of its efficiency, only to be reduced to an impressive mess that had audiences growling by the end, as though they themselves also realize the irony of the values we tend to gloat about, as societies, only to then find ourselves revoking them when the first true test comes along.
It all starts with Carla (a fantastic Leonie Benesch in a difficult, challenging role that requires a very skilled actor whose able to show the contradictions of being a steely educator and a deeply vulnerable human) is a new hire at a German junior high. When the film starts, the school had recently experienced a set of mysterious thefts with no culprit found. The school’s headmaster repeatedly mentions to staff that this is a zero-tolerance school, where every small act of rebellion, disturbance of noncompliance requires great scrutiny. Soon after, the school comes up with an interrogation scheme, one that is the first sign of a series of troubled procedures that soon show the true face of a righteous system supposedly built on equality, respect and innocent-until-guilty values. This is all thrown out of the window as soon as the interrogation results in forcing students to surrender their wallets, resulting in a Turkish student being the prime suspect.
Carla, as righteous and politically correct as the school itself, opposes the school’s way of finding the culprit, and eventually helps clear the name of the Turkish student, blaming racism and prejudice. She isn’t purely German herself, having been born to Polish parents who moved to Germany to start a new life there. But as noble as Carla’s intentions are, her own values, derived from a society that calls itself democratic and a pinnacle of civilization and human rights, are put to the test and deeply shaken as her reflexes show that when personal interest collides with idealistic values, the personal defeats the idealistic, a defeat that forces Car;as, and us as viewers, to truly question the underlying flaws in the school system as we witness its dismantlement.
The screenplay, brilliantly penned by Johannes Dunker, takes stabs at how double standards and political correctness are such a deadly combo, revealing how progress can truly be impossible to achieve when our ultra-sensitivity is simply a way to hide our own weakness and project them outward rather than truly being able to look inward and examine ourselves. It’s a fascinating proposition, one that works perfectly as we witness the vulnerability of the school’s educators, finally descending from their moral high horses, as well as the cunning resilience of students who push their teachers to their limits, testing the very same values that have been shoved down their throats.
A fascinating piece of filmmaking that forces us to question and re-examine our readiness to apply the very same values we pride ourselves for adhering to, The Teachers’ Lounge will surely find a larger audience as it will likely hit the Oscar shortlist this December.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The Teachers’ Lounge is Germany’s official submission for the International Feature Film Oscar and will be released in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics.