You can do read onlineor – better yet – you can sweat it out in its completed form when it opens in wide release this week. Either way, the script for the German thriller “Teachers’ Lounge” is so tight it creaks, each new development in a series of unfortunate events falling into place like a turn of the Rubik’s Cube — providing the film with a visual leitmotif. not since then “Bear” Is there anything so universally described as so adorably frustrating? And at the 3-minute mark, the tension builds as if we were reaching a dramatic climax.
Co-writer/director İlker Çatak’s story, set in a middle school (at or around middle school age), co-written by Johannes Duncker, sends one of the new faculty members into a kind of psychic free fall. Math and physical education teacher Carla Nowak is idealistic, hard-working, and, as we see in the first scenes of the classroom, a smart and sensitive educator who deals with a variety of temperaments, cultural backgrounds, and learning tendencies. Leonie Benesch (of “The Crown” and “Berlin Babylon”) as Carla is superb, even if the movie itself is truly heartbreaking.
The school was facing a series of thefts by unknown perpetrators; money stolen from wallets, a large amount of pens. Carla’s fellow teachers enlist the new school year’s seventh-grade “student representatives” to help them identify the guilty parties. Clearly, two children are in conflict. And they allegedly give the names voluntarily. It doesn’t really feel like it, and throughout “Teachers’ Lounge” both students and faculty operate in a deep fog of mistrust and justified paranoia.
The defendant is a clever foreigner, a Turkish immigrant boy named Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch, whose levels of defiance and panic are brilliantly measured). His mother (Eva Löbau) works in the school’s administrative office. When Carla becomes the unknown thief’s latest victim (he steals money from her wallet in his coat pocket), she succumbs to the sneaky, tense school atmosphere and secretly records images that resemble those of the office administrator on her laptop camera. He was caught red-handed.
Or is it him? “Teachers’ Lounge” knows better than to oversimplify things, but its preferred screw-tightening methods are simple in another way: brutal. A panorama of bad decisions with deeply disturbing consequences. The boy accused of theft is cleared early, but only after the faculty “zero tolerance” brigade enters Carla’s classroom and “asks” the students to open their wallets for inspection. Tellingly, director Çatak’s camera frequently captures the wary glances drawn toward Carla, especially after a disastrous parent/teacher conference followed by the most poorly timed interview with school newspaper members in the student journalism yearbooks.
The movie works. It’s an almost absurdly tightly wound, secret pile-driving experience. Emerging as a parable for contemporary surveillance culture and turbulent tensions in Europe (and around the world), Carla’s initially well-intentioned actions – her reluctance to point fingers and join her colleagues in holding whatever perceived threats to account – divide the fighters among the Germans. It goes back generations, and German citizens have recently moved from all over: to Turkey in the case of Ali, or to Poland in the case of Carla. The “Teachers Guild” lives for the agony and unintended consequences of everyone’s conflicting ideas. At the beginning, when Carla teaches her students the mathematical distinctions between “evidence” and “assumption,” we’ve already seen a tense parade of shaky character conjectures and character assassinations in action.
Definitely part of a whole: Marvin Miller’s music, in devilish harmony It makes excellent use of plucking strings and scraping sounds, along with Carla’s turbulent anxiety. As this beleaguered idealist charges through the school hallways, preparing for the story’s final rug pull, cinematographer Judith Kaufmann’s elegantly menacing roving shots evoke Kirk Douglas in “Paths of Glory” or a prowling (at the bottom of the cinema food chain) On the prowl! recent ditches “All is calm on the western front.”
The actors beautifully tone down what the writing and filmmaking sometimes exaggerates. Benesch is a powerhouse of subtlety and focus, and the camera stays as close as possible to her watchful, sometimes disbelieving eyes. Carla resembles a character in Henrik Ibsen’s plays; one of the valiant, principled characters, unintentionally undermines the very people he is trying to help. “Teachers’ Lodge” also evokes the Byzantine fate and coincidences found in the daily bureaucratic nightmares of Iran’s Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation,” “A Hero”).
It’s worth seeing, in part, just to see how it affects you: as unnerving and thought-provoking, or as frustrating without that elusive, unresolved dimension of truth, or as cynical uncertainty, or whatever. “I prefer discussing problems to staying silent,” Carla says at one point. This is the healthy approach. Yet he is surrounded by colleagues and students teaching their own lessons in human error, for that is education in a nutshell: certainty facing doubt, one assignment at a time. And if we can see it, it’s the occasional glimmer of a path forward.
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“Teachers’ Lounge” — 3 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for some strong language)
Running time: 1:34
How to watch: Premieres in theaters January 19.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.