The Teachers’ Lounge | SLIFF 2023

Teachers all over the world should be paid more. You would have to have your head buried under a mile of sand to not recognize how difficult and disrespected the profession is. İlker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge certainly understands and empathizes with many of the problems and pressures that plague the everyday lives of teachers, but it doesn’t quite understand dramatic credibility.

Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) is a teacher of sixth-graders in Germany. An epidemic of petty theft has been underway at her school, and one of her students is wrongly accused of being the culprit. In order to prove his innocence, she decides to investigate by setting up a hidden camera, and an arm reaching into her unattended jacket leads Carla to suspect her much longer-tenured colleague Friederike (Eva Löbau). This is the first trouble spot in the film’s execution. Where Carla’s hidden camera is placed doesn’t make a whole lot of sense spatially, and this inciting incident is edited much worse than the rest of the film. At this critical juncture in the story, I found it hard not to lose the thread.

What comes immediately after is quite gripping, with Friederike vehemently denying Carla’s accusation, and everyone finding it very difficult to keep this mess out of earshot of the students. However, the film quickly devolves into what comes off as hysterics. I’m not calling Carla hysterical, rather, everyone around her. The Teachers’ Lounge clearly isn’t going for anything too fantastical, and yet there are very few shades of gray to many of these characters. Most of them turn on Carla at the first sign of trouble, rarely to ever be calm and rational again. It would be an exciting escalation if any of these villains felt remotely true to life.

There’s no denying that gossip and rumors in schools can be extremely messy, and that teachers are often caught in the crossfire. The problem here is that this movie feels very grounded in its first act, and then suddenly isn’t paced well enough to stay grounded for too much longer. It goes from 0 to 100 in the span of about five minutes, which would be terrible for a car, but is also terrible for a movie, for the opposite reason. Stories — especially dramas commenting on real-world situations — need time to breathe, to invite us into a character’s headspace, to get us to fully empathize with a main character.

It’s easy to sympathize with Carla because she’s being attacked from all sides. Empathy, of course, is a little different. Empathy is based on a fuller understanding of a whole person. We really only know Carla as having been well-intentioned, and now having to pay a steep price for that. Unfortunately, we never really get inside her head. Because of this fatal flaw, The Teachers’ Lounge often feels like a video game where you, playing as Carla, keep losing every level but somehow still move on to the next one.

There are things to admire here. I love how the school itself becomes a character in the film, in part because we never leave it. We know pretty much the whole layout of that school by the end. The acting across the board is quite good, with Benesch in particular giving a commanding performance, thoroughly encapsulating Carla’s constant desire to heal her classroom. The film’s core, however, is fundamentally broken. Teachers go through a hell of a lot, no question. Nevertheless, Carla having literally no one in her corner feels irrevocably contrived from the start. | George Napper

In German with English subtitles. The St. Louis International Film Festival 2023 continues through Nov. 19. Single film tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid current photo IDs. Further information is available here. For information on future screenings of The Teachers’ Lounge, watch the movie’s official page from Sony Pictures Classics.

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