It might have been a few decades since you left school. You might imagine the modern classroom — especially one in a decently funded, mid-sized German high school — to be as alien to your own educational background as to be unrecognizable. And yet one of the remarkable aspects of İlker Çatak’s highly effective, slow-cooker drama is a strangely specific familiarity. It delivers you directly into a sense memory of chalk dust and boredom, of fidgeting at your desk and gazing longingly through big windows that seem tauntingly designed for exactly that purpose. “The Teachers’ Lounge” is about a lot of things — conformity, rebellion, racism, optics, intergenerational mistrust — but it is also a stark reminder, from both the teacher and the student side, of what school actually was for so many of us: our first and most foundational experience of institutionalization.
The pupils in this particular seventh grade are already, as the film begins, the uneasy focus of an internal investigation into a series of thefts. Their new math and PE instructor, Carla Nowak (a terrific Leonie Benesch), is unwillingly drawn into the interrogation of two class representatives, during which they point the finger of suspicion at a Turkish classmate, Ali (Can Rodenbostel). Over Carla’s objections, and under Marvin Miller’s intrigue-laden score, Ali is duly searched and an unusual amount of cash found in his wallet.
When his indignant parents supply a plausible explanation, Carla is further convinced of Ali’s innocence and of the covertly racist nature of the accusations against him — not only on the part of his pre-teen peers but also of her fellow teachers. As the energetic, dedicated newcomer in a faculty full of more jaded, less student-focused educators, Carla is subtly estranged from her colleagues anyway: Parallels are clearly drawn between the cliquey dynamics and divisions in the seventh grade homeroom, and those of the staffroom.
Carla resolves to find the true culprit, and sets up a “sting” which reveals that the administrator, Mrs Kuhn (Eva Löbau), may be the thief. Carla tries to be scrupulously discreet in confronting her and then bringing the evidence to the principal (Anne-Kathrin Gummich), but the news soon leaks. That provides further angst for Carla: As luck would have it, Mrs Kuhn is the mother of Oscar (an outstanding Leo Stettnisch), a bright but withdrawn boy with whom Carla had formed a special bond before the stigmatization of his mother threatened to make him a pariah. Blaming her for his mother’s disgrace, Oscar turns his clever mind to dismantling Carla’s reputation and undermining her credibility, and gradually the tide turns against her. He’s a good student. She’s a good teacher. This is a good school. How do things get so bad?
As Carla has the bright edges of her idealism chipped away, the color gradually fades from Judith Kaufman’s crisp, freshly washed handheld cinematography. In this cold palette, the corridors and bathrooms become comfortless, hard-edged, overlit places, without dark corners in which the truth can hide. Yet the story plays out ambivalently, and not just because Mrs Kuhn’s guilt is never firmly established, just as Ali’s innocence is never wholly proven. The characterization of Carla herself is also fraught. She is sympathetic and genuinely committed to her students, but also overly rigid, almost prim in her disavowal of the other, loucher teachers. If she has a fatal flaw it is hubris: the folly of believing that whatever compromises her peers may have made, somehow her principles are pure enough to withstand the realpolitik of mass education.
Aside from some unnecessarily melodramatic surreal sequences that only communicate what Benesch’s performance has already told us about Carla’s fraying state of mind, and the slight overuse of pacy scoring to offset Gesa Jäger’s deceptively sedate editing, “The Teachers’ Lounge” — the third feature from Student Academy Award winner Çatak — is a fine exercise in restrained but mounting tension. It saves its killer flourish for last, with a sly reversal in which a moment of saddening defeat is shot to look like a hero’s victory. It makes the film into an ironic lament for those on both sides of the desk, who believe they can outwit or outplay a system that is necessarily designed to protect the interests of the many, at the expense of the troublesome but possibly brilliant few.
That said, this is no broadside against Germany’s academic apparatus, nor even against the failings of educational institutions more generally. Instead, it makes the subtle but striking argument that school is not some sterile, cloistered haven in which we can safely prepare young minds for the challenges of the real world: It is the real world, and at every roll call, all those challenges are already present.