Murder, grievous bodily harm, high-stakes heists and sexual intrigue: These are the electrifying elements that often come into play in a top-notch thriller. The teachers’ lounge it boasts none of the above and yet is perhaps the most nerve-wracking thriller of the year.
The film’s premise is audaciously low-stakes: cracking the case of who is committing a series of petty thefts — money and pencils — at a German high school. Such a banal crime should not be interesting, much less fascinating. However, co-writer/director Ilker Chatak masterfully unfolds a sadistically tense narrative that touches on ethics, racism, loyalty, and the dark side of sticking to your principles. The result is a lean, slow thriller that is relentlessly riveting.
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What’s going on around here? The teachers’ lounge?
Before the US premiere was even announced, this German drama boasted a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating since its debut at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film has already been selected as Germany’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the upcoming 96th Academy Awards. So, heading into its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, The teachers’ lounge riding on a wave of good words and solid prestige. Don’t let that fool you into thinking this is some pretentious arthouse thriller. Çatak has created a film that works like anxiety-inducing magic because it feels so damn real.
What is The teachers’ lounge regarding?
Leonie Benes stars as Carla (a.k.a. Mrs. Novak), a fresh-out-of-university teacher who is dedicated to doing her best for her students. In class, this means being patient and putting down bullying. But outside of class, she is forced time and time again to protect her students, while petty theft turns other teachers into amateur detectives, eager to interrogate, racially profile, strip-search, and terrorize children. When Carla plants a hidden camera loop, she hopes to put a quick and quiet end to all this drama—including the abuses of power that come with it. Instead, she is drawn into a quagmire of accusations, suspicions, and betrayal that spans the entire faculty, student body, and beyond.
The teacher’s lounge shakes up the tension thanks to Leonie Benes and a nerve-wracking score.
Chatak and co-author Johannes Dunker offer a deceptively simple narrative. There is no earth-shattering plot twist here. Instead, it’s a cascade of small disasters. Outbreak sparks debate. A rumor causes panic. Selfish concern breeds growing paranoia. As the institution around her shakes with emotion and the adults wage war with the children for control of the narrative—a losing battle from the start—Carla fights for truth, justice, and the student who has been unfairly dragged into the middle.
Benes takes the film remarkably well. Carla is a heroine who is haughty but introverted. Aware that all eyes are on her, she is precise in her choice of words. But Benesh’s eyes, full of rage and pain, express the anger he harbors inside. Her physicality, going from soft around her homeroom to sharp when in conflict, speaks to the pressure placed on her every move. Her voice switches from subdued to clipped when she’s caught off guard by students playing bait and switch with a school newspaper interview that turns into uneven exposure. Benes imbues her physical performance with bouts of anxiety and preoccupation that plague her character.
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As Carla swallows her anxiety and frustration to keep her composure in front of her class, Marvin Miller’s music sings of building tension. Violins play and screech, adding depth to the drama in these grimy school corridors. The shrill shrieks of strings are unnerving, denying the viewer room to coolly reflect on the rapidly unfolding fiasco. Like Karla, we can feel crushed – especially when Chatak breaks away from authenticity for a touch of the surreal.
In a film painted in muted colors with a production design that is purposefully mundane, a bright white blouse with childish big yellow stars stands out. A clue, a conviction, and then – as Carla begins to doubt herself – that blouse becomes the center of a vision that pits reality against fear, truth against confusion. It’s a small flourish in a film that’s completely real, but extremely important, reflecting how Carla is torn by the pressures of not only being an advocate for her students, but also living up to her high standards for herself.
While the stakes seem low, The teachers’ lounge expertly reveals how severe the consequences can be for a minor offense (or the offense of a minor). The film prompts the audience to question the broader political meaning of this teacher’s struggle—to understand not only her plight, but also that of the students who oppose her most voraciously. An unfolding of anger and sympathy in a third act that hits like a blow to the head, The teachers’ lounge is uniquely exhilarating, subtly engaging, and ultimately compelling.
A tale of good intentions and hurt feelings, with every grounded but growling scene The teachers’ lounge it drives home the horror that on any given day this spiraling nightmare could be your own.
The teacher’s lounge it’s in theaters now.
UPDATE: December 21, 2023, 2:07 PM EST The Teacher’s Lounge was reviewed from its North American premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The article has been republished for the film’s US theatrical debut.