When Truth Becomes a Matter of Belief: Filmmaker Ilker Çatak on Academic Accusation Suspenser The Teachers’ Lounge

Probing questions of truth, evidence and justice through a lens of cancel culture dynamics, this razor sharp picture is 2023's finest international feature.

22 mins read

What is the role of objective truth—if any—in a modern moment when reputations and livelihoods can be instantaneously demolished without tangible evidence, and belief in alternative facts has been emboldened? And what are the spoils of idealism against such a rigged court of public opinion?

In The Teachers’ Lounge, Germany’s entry for this year’s Best International Feature Oscar, Turkish-German filmmaker Ilkir Çatak considers these concepts in his nail-biting drama, a tightly coiled exercise in tension that posits a smart, progressive junior high school teacher in a gauntlet of anxiety after a rash of school thefts and accusations threaten to topple both the faculty and student body.

The teacher, played by a brilliant Leonie Benesch (who deserves an Oscar nod), is an idealistic advocate for her students, suspecting someone at the professional level—and not within the student body—may be the culprit. Her actions to prove such ignite a firestorm that finds her alienated from colleagues, the object of parental suspicions and at odds with her increasingly distrustful students. No good deed goes severely unpunished.

I recently caught up with Ilkir Çatak to chat about The Teachers’ Lounge, a picture audiences are plugging into with passion and strong opinions, and one firmly in the crosshairs of today’s cancel culture debate, probing larger questions about truth, evidence and justice, as well as the right to privacy in an academic setting.

The Teachers’ Lounge is a drama that builds anxiety and tension 95 minutes. It feels like a thriller. Can you share a bit about crafting that tone?

IC: Yes. We began with the script. It was very much about how each scene would put pressure on the next. That was sort of the rule we set during our writing process. There were many rules, actually. One of them was that if there’s no conflict in a scene we do not need it. All of our deleted scenes did not have an actual conflict. We were very much inspired by (Iranian filmmaker) Asghar Farad and his screenplays. He always has these little incidents happen that suddenly spiral and turn out to be some sort of meta-commentary for society. You can’t actually tell who’s right or wrong. So those were the influences. And then of course you keep on writing the script in the editing process. Not so much during shooting because there was almost no improvisation at all. But in the editing process we sharpened the thing and then also the music and sound design came on top. And that’s actually what makes this film a thriller. So I didn’t start out thinking ‘I’m going to make a thriller,’ even though I knew that some aspects of it could be thriller-ish, like the video surveillance. And I was also thinking of Antonioni’s Blow Up.

The situation that occurs in the film is very much one that is happening in today’s world. There is a question of what is provable or able to be verified with evidence; what is objective truth? This doesn’t always seem to matter today where a rumor goes viral and lives can be ruined. Much of the film’s suspense comes from that situation. There is so much at stake for so many. 

IC: Exactly. That was actually something- first of all, it was like the post-Trump era where the whole notion of truth had shifted and everybody was relying on their facts or their ‘alternative facts’ or whatever, and we were in the pandemic where some people were referring to one source and others to another, and truth became a matter of belief. We thought that was actually very interesting to be thinking about and reflecting on. I’m happy that this resonates with the U.S. audiences too, because when I was doing it I thought perhaps there was just too much dialogue in German and maybe too much subtitle reading, but it turns out the subtitle translation is excellent. 

Let’s talk about the character of Carla Novak. Leonie Benesch, whom I believe is in every scene of the film, is immediately likable. Her Carla is a fair-minded, progressive and contemporary teacher who inspires her students to learn. She is also at odds with the administration for being aligned with what she believes is fair treatment of the student body. As she gets deeper into the process it seems to me that she is aware of her potential missteps which are too late to stop. There is a moment where she says, ‘Don’t call the police.’ I felt quite a bit for her conflict. She is alone, has no confidant and is left to navigate the events while wondering if she has done the right thing. We also wonder. 

IC: Right. What was interesting to us was that she wants to do right and then she realizes that she’s done wrong, and then at some point there’s a scene where the other teacher asks her, ‘Did he hit you?’ She says no and suddenly she is the one who is lying. And that’s something that was very like interesting to us—how she is sort of selling out the truth for a higher truth, and her higher truth is protecting that kid and tidying up the mess that she’s created. 

Yes, but when we see that moment where she lies it’s sort of noble and we’re very happy that she has done so. 

IC: Yes! That’s actually interesting because usually we’re the ones saying liars aren’t good. But i’m happy if the film like manages to evoke that feeling in you. 

The interesting thing also is that at the beginning of the film there is a discussion about the ongoing theft situation. Right as the the movie begins we are starting at a point where the stakes are already high. After someone is accused it’s almost as if it doesn’t really matter if the person is guilty or not, because the movie is not necessarily about who is the culprit. 

IC: Right. It is not about who did it but rather how are we dealing with the ones that are accused. You see this so many times in in politics or jury trials. Sometimes the people in charge need to bring a sacrifice in order to keep the system running. That was the idea—how every society creates their own scapegoats to show that they are taking action as if to say, ‘Look we’re doing something.’ It tears my heart apart when I see these these sacrificial pawns. 

Eva Löbau is so good as the accused that we immediately connect with her fraught Mrs. Kuhn. Although we are fairly certain that we’ve seen something evidentiary with our own eyes, from the moment that she is summoned to the principal’s office we become less sure. She appears to have a good value system and is compelling, believable and has a great deal of sincerity. I found that fascinating. She is such a fine actress that she gets us to believe that perhaps there is a mistake. We feel for her each time she is onscreen, whether she’s riding her bicycle in the rain or unexpectedly appears at the parent-teacher event. 

IC: Yes. I didn’t do any casting (for the role) because i knew she would be perfect and I wanted to work with her for a very long long time. We met in a park and talked about the role and she said, ‘I would love for her to be innocent. Can I play it as if she’s innocent? I know you’re not answering this question and you don’t need to, but let me just do it innocently.’ I said, ‘Go for it. You have it. I trust your instinct and you will do the best.’ And that is what she did. That is the cool thing about having actors like Eva, who is one of the best. She is a very funny person and very intelligent and with great empathy. She said, ‘I know (the character) is the weakest person in the field. She is the one who comes in each day and is the last to leave. She earns less and is a single mother. This is also about class. But I would like her to dress like nicely, be a good mom and be innocent. Can i do it like that?’ I said, ‘Yes, go for it.’ And that is how it went. 

Leonard Stettnisch is also compelling in the film and bears the weight of the classic theme of the ‘sins of the fathers visited on the children.’ His face carries this tragedy. Initially his Oskar is a star student before we see him erode socially, academically and otherwise. It is all in this young actor’s expressions right up the final moment between teacher and student. How do you take such complex material like this and explain it to an actor of such a young age?

IC: He was eleven. He is actually the son of Michael Klammer, who plays the teacher Thomas Liebenwerda. Michael said to me, ‘I know you’re casting the class and I have a son who wants to be an extra.’ When I saw him I wanted to cast him. There is something about children that have gone through the divorce of their parents. He was a child whose mother and father were separated. They were both very loving and thankfully get along well. But there is a weight on such kids and you can actually see it in their behavior. When he came to casting there was this great melancholy and at the same time an incredible focus. I asked his father, ‘Is this dude meditating five times a day?’ Because he was so focused and so there. It was clear he was our our kid. At the same time I could be sure that when he would go home his father was going to prep him for the next day! That was big coincidence and great luck.

In those scenes where he is speaking to the principal—‘What did my mother do? You must apologize to her’—there’s such a loss of innocence. I loved that scene where the ‘trust exercise’ is performed with the arms. 

IC: Yes. That scene came from research. We talked to a lot of educators about what could be a measure to rebuild trust in a student’s life and that was one of the exercises. I was also very intrigued by how the sons of single mothers have a certain machoism. They think they are the men of the house and that is why he’s like this, as when he takes the candy and then puts it back or grabs the chair. I love kids who actually act as if they’re grown-ups.

There’s a scene in the film where Carla is interviewed for the student newspaper, which I found very thought-provoking in the youthful precociousness of the students who are advanced enough to understand journalism tenets. There’s that wonderful line that the truth breaks all bonds. 

IC: Yeah, overcomes all bonds. 

I had been on Carla’s side through the film but at that juncture I wondered if perhaps the students had a broader understanding of the situation and could see more than I did.

IC: They do have a point, but they are at the same time they’re very much about the ‘big bang’. It is like when a tabloid paper actually has a point, but they position it in a way where it is scandalous or speculative or juicy. In Germany we have the Fridays for Future (youth) movement. They are trying to save the planet and nobody is listening to them which is why they need to be louder than all of the others. Do I like it? I don’t. But are they important? Yes, they are. 

Can you share a bit about working with Leonie Benesch, whom I have admired since Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon? She is riveting in every single scene. She leads with intellect. We can see her thinking through what is the best course of action in every moment. There’s only one scene in the film where she leads with emotion, which is when she says, ‘Can I have a hug?’

IC: We wrote it for her. She never gets lead parts in German movies. She’s so brilliant. It was just magical. She’s very, very intelligent and a great human being. By the second day of shooting she had learned everybody’s names; even, for example, our gaffers and electricians. She is very focused and at the same time very relaxed. She has got humor and intuition. (Shooting a scene) she would make an offer and then we could just move on. My DP would turn to me and say, ‘Hey, don’t you want to maybe do another take?’ And I said, ‘No, no, she nailed it. Let’s move on.’  And because of her we would wrap up early every day. She is a gift. To me, she is the best of her generation.

So what happens for you next?

IC: I’m shooting my next film in May. It’s a film about a couple and about marriage. It’s about artists who get into trouble because they are not aligned with the government. And it is about freedom of speech. It takes place in Turkey, but it’s about exiled people that are in Germany. It is going to be political. 

And the film is set in the present day?

IC: Modern day. It’s going to be personal and political.

In the U.S. we don’t have as much of a view how artists face repercussions from making government critical or anti-establishment art because we able to make it freely here. So when you see a film like- did you see Joyland out of Pakistan? 

IC: I haven’t. 

It was banned by the country and it was a big fight to get the film seen. It’s fascinating to consider that there are still artists that would need go into hiding or be exiled.

IC: I was talking to the Holy Spider crew a couple of months ago and none of them can enter Iran anymore. And, and if you look at a film, it’s just completely worth it. I would cut off my left arm to make a film like that. 

Holy Spider, yes. Very similar to No Bears, also from Iran, last year. The filmmaker, Jafar Panahi, was put imprisoned, exiled and then finally freed. Here in the U.S., our filmmakers seem to no longer have that spirit in them. We are living through tumultuous, polarized times here politically and socially but we don’t have any artists really addressing it. We used to have Michael Moore, who was very critical of the Bush administration or the healthcare system. Oliver Stone was also a cultural essayist. But no filmmaker has emerged to address the recent administrative volatility and its impact on the culture. We seem not to have young artists today standing up and taking on the government, big business or economic inequality. Where is the modern-day All the President’s Men? Why has there not been an equivalent post January 6? I don’t know why.

IC: I don’t know either. But I do know that at the moment you are forbidden to speak it is good for creativity. So they make great films in all those countries where people are forbidden to speak. And sometimes in Germany I have that too. I think everybody is so saturated and can do and say what they want and complete freedom isn’t good for creativity. And that was actually something that we were very much aware of in The Teachers’ Lounge when we said we would not leaving the school setting, but rather make it work.  

Lastly, do you know in your heart who actually committed the film’s crimes?

IC: No comment on that! I’m sorry! (Laughter)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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