A well-meaning educator finds herself in the crosshairs of suspicion in the tightly coiled dramatic thriller The Teachers’ Lounge, a morality play indicting the swift spoils of cancel culture and the discarding of objective truth in a rush to judgment. It also has something to say about privacy in an academic setting. Directed and co-written by Turkish-German filmmaker Ilkir Çatak (a student Academy Award winner) and this year’s Best International Feature Oscar submission from Germany, the picture is a nerve shredding 98-minute exercise in high stakes tension.
Set in the world of contemporary German secondary education, new instructor Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) is a beloved math and P.E. teacher whose engaging classroom culture is popular with her motivated students; not so much with her faculty colleagues after she rejects an unethical student shakedown driven by a rash of thefts that have rocked the school. The administration’s Draconian investigative tactics zero in on the students, which doesn’t sit well with Carla, a witness to surprise student searches, the racial profiling of a foreign-born student (Can Rodenbotel) found with cash whose incensed parents are summoned to defend him and an attempted student coercion from demonstrative establishment colleague Mr. Libenwenda (Thomas Klemmer).
Diplomatic Carla is a progressive student ally, espousing the values of fairness to her students, whom minus evidence she refuses to scapegoat for the incidents. To this aim, she sets a trap in the teacher’s lounge involving her untended wallet in view of her laptop camera, and one quickly seeming to reveal a faculty member the likely culprit. Or does it? The subsequent suspension of school office admin Ms. Kuhn (a heartrending Eva Löbau), fiercely maintaining innocence, appears to solve the crimes. But Carla’s star student, Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), is also Mrs. Kuhn’s overprotective son, and his mother’s immediate ruin without due process dooms him socially and academically in an aggressive, sins-of-the-fathers spiral. No good deed, indeed.
This unexpected turn of events tears apart the faculty and student body as the teachers distrust Carla, who while seemingly cracking the case refuses to stand in faculty solidarity and has exposed the school to charges of illegal surveillance. For their part, the students quickly turn against both teacher and classmate. Fledgling eleven-year-old actor Stettnisch, the son of co-star Thomas Klemmer, is heartbreaking as the guilty-by-association son whose emotional affect and classroom status plummet. These dynamics escalate to a terrific scene where Carla agrees to a student newspaper interview grilling, which upon publication only exacerbates the already fraught school order. And the picture manages a blistering scene set at a parent-teacher event where accuser must face the accused, having suffered irreparable consequences and wanting the other parents to know exactly who is responsible for her fall.
What propels the considerable momentum of this anxious picture, a taut exercise in storytelling technique, is a trio of exceedingly high order contributions: an unnerving, minimalist string score by composer Marvin Miller, propulsive cutting by editor Gesa Jäger and an airtight screenplay by Çatak and Johannes Duncker, a model of efficiency and suspense calibration in its high stakes, scene-for-scene conflict escalation. It also gives us a protagonist of remarkable complication (and sometimes contradiction) in her idealism and imperfection.
The most important contribution is delivered by the marvelous Benesch, the thirty-two-year-old German actress whose memorable turn in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon fifteen years ago launched her career. Benesch appears in every scene here, trapped in the school setting (the movie never leaves the academic grounds) and intensely focused on navigating Carla’s byzantine Pandora’s box of her own making. In every scene the actress lends her conflicted idealogue both a burning intellect and a fierce moral code, which seems increasingly compromised as the film progresses. Polish-born while living and working in Germany, her Carla understands what it feels like to be on the outside of the mob—but never more than when she inadvertently places someone else there—and the superb Benesch captures this bitter irony in a portrait of thwarted idealism so gripping that she should be at the top of this year’s Best Actress Oscar contenders.
The Teachers’ Lounge is a microcosm of society—here the divided dystopia of a German academic setting where accusations and suspicion trump principle—but it’s also a broader cultural indictment of the eradication of objective truth (rather than so-called alternative facts) in the court of public opinion.