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TIFF 2023 Review: The Teacher’s Lounge – “A well-crafted film”

Courtesy of TIFF

“Truth overcomes all bonds. Everything else is just PR.”

Those words that adorn the walls of the school paper are fitting, if not slightly ominous, in director Ilker Çatak’s latest feature The Teacher’s Lounge.

Ms Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) is a new teacher at a German middle school. She is ever enthusiastic about her job and well-liked by her class. But what she’s not a fan of is how her colleagues have blamed a Turkish student in her class for some theft that has been going on at the school. She finds their tactics unethical, and coercive. So she sets a trap to catch the actual culprit.

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Her laptop camera set on record, she leaves her wallet in her jacket pocket in the teacher’s lounge and the footage leads her to believe that the thief is actually school administrator Ms. Kuhn (Eva Löbau). However, her accusations begin to escalate. Soon the entire school is aware of the reason Ms. Kuhn is no longer there. Some are taking it out on her son, Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), a student in Carla’s class. Like a train on the tracks running out of control, this incident of petty theft begins to stir a toxic environment at the school. “Rumours lead to distrust,” says Nowak, and never before has that been more true amongst the faculty and students alike.

The Teacher’s Lounge works from a screenplay from Johannes Duncker (and Çatak) which would work equally well as a stage play. And if you’ve read any of my previous reviews you’ll know that those types of films are ones I tend to gravitate towards. This one is no different. Taking place entirely within the school, the filmmakers are able to ratchet up the tension, aided by a discordant score from Marvin Miller, strings playing tightly wound until it feels something might just snap. And that it does.

Leonie Benesch is certainly deserving of the German Film Award she won for her performance here.   She is resolute and determined as Carla, a woman who wants to stand by her students, who wants to take a stand against xenophobia, even as she hides her own heritage.  She’s complex and flawed, exactly the type of main character you want in a film, especially since Benesch still keeps her sympathetic.  The cast of characters that surround her, teachers and students alike, are all excellent, each playing their own roles in the snowballing events to follow.

The entirety of The Teacher’s Lounge hinges on the differences between proof and assumption.  This is the same whether Carla is asking her students if the number 0.999 is the same as 1, or if she is accusing a woman with a distinct blouse of being the arm on video taking money from a wallet.  It’s a film that meshes so well in today’s culture, where we assume so much, where social media disseminates information quickly, where we often rush to conclusions without methodical proof.

It’s easy to see why Germany selected The Teacher’s Lounge to represent their country at the Academy Awards for 2024.  It’s a well-crafted film that early on manages to grip the audience with increasing tension and anxiety.  Like the anticipation of a dreaded school exam, The Teacher’s Lounge builds but never breaks, its ideas and themes likely to stay with you long after class is dismissed.

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