73rd Berlin International Film Festival: “The Teachers’ Lounge” Review
It’s Carla Nowak’s (Leonie Benesch) first semester teaching within a school. Young and idealistic, she’s the type of teacher who greets her students with a good morning clap and chant routine, organises pop quizzes, and lends out Rubik’s cubes to kids who can’t afford their own. Carla is a teacher constantly on the go, so much so that when she hears about a mysterious string of thefts within her school, she can’t help but get roped in. Trying to play detective, Carla ends up embroiling herself in a dizzying whirlwind of accusations, moral wrongdoings, and the unanswerable question of who gets to judge who for doing what. Directed by Ilker Çatak, The Teachers’ Lounge is an astute and introspective look into the structures of schools, the teachings we pass onto children (without following ourselves) and individual morality.
The whole affair starts when a fellow teacher reports having money and inventory stolen from him numerous times. One of Carla’s students, Ali (Can Rodenbostel) is then interrogated by teachers on the matter and, although found not guilty, is subsequently bullied by his peers. Looking to clear Ali’s name, Carla tries to find the real thief by setting up a hidden camera within the school. However, things don’t go quite to plan for Carla when she reviews the footage and discovers who the thief really is. Things then spiral out of control when Carla involves the school’s headmaster, who threatens immediate punishment and police involvement. Rumours then fly around the school and Carla is stuck fending off rebelling students who are sick of being accused and interrogated, a draconian ‘zero tolerance’ policy she doesn’t believe in, and parents demanding answers.
The Teachers’ Lounge is a warning tale to those who persistently strive for moral perfectionism – particularly when operating within the politics of the staff room. Throughout the film, Carla is constantly ‘trying to do the right thing’ which often gets her into trouble with both students and staff. Amongst staff, Carla is described as an argumentative newcomer who ‘wants to win over students at any cost’. When teachers interview Ali and other students, she plays good cop – objecting to pressuring questions or coercion. When staff speculate about the professions of students’ parents, Carla is called uptight for claiming that such things are irrelevant. Amongst students, she is viewed as an upholder of an archaic and oppressive teaching institution which humiliates and indicts its students without justification. Throughout Carla’s misguided venture of goodwill and moral integrity, she only makes matters worse for both her and the children as she draws backlash from faculty and students alike for her muddled and sometimes hypocritical actions. Here, Çatak examines the space between intent and action; and how sometimes even those with good intentions can end up causing more damage than those without.
While Carla may have benevolent aims, she is stuck in the confines of the education system and her actions can only go so far if she wants to keep her role. The Teachers’ Lounge examines the power structures at play in educational settings- whether it be the teachers’ power over the student, the parents’ power over the teacher, or more senior teachers’ power over newcomers. Carla constantly tries to distinguish herself as a moral character amongst students and parents – at parents’ evening, she sincerely tells parents how she disagrees with some of the ways the school has handled the theft ordeal. But where it matters most, in faculty meetings and in the teacher’s lounge, her voice has almost no weight to it. As much as she may protest, the decision to exclude, interrogate, or punish students goes way above her head.
Throughout the film, there is a quiet but consistent bubbling sense of discomfort and anxiety. From the thundering rain scenes to uncomfortable confrontations with fellow teachers and panic attacks in the bathroom to the constant plucking of violin strings; Çatak builds a brewing sense of panic within Carla’s world. Set entirely within the school – apart from the film’s climax which includes a brief trip to the outside world – The Teachers’ Lounge crafts an all-engulfing and claustrophobic atmosphere. In one brilliant scene, Ms Novak has had enough of her own anxiety and instructs her class to simply ‘scream as loud as [they] can’ alongside her. Dramatic but never out-of-touch, The Teachers’ Lounge excels in its ability to make entertainment out of everyday anxieties and conflicts.
At one point in the film, Carla tries to explain what an algorithm is to a student – she describes it as a ‘clearly defined set of steps to solve a given problem’. However, The Teachers’ Lounge cynically suggests that life is never that simple and that there are often great and complex problems of social injustices and societal wrongdoing – whose resolution falls beyond our own individual problem-solving skills. Refreshing and instinctive in its direction, The Teachers’ Lounge thinks long and hard about human limits, what individual morality means and just how far it can go in modern institutions.
Written by Abi Aherne
The Teachers’ Lounge Won Berlin Europe Cinema Label at the Berlin International Film Festival 2023.