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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished in The Teacher's Lounge

A teacher with red hair screams at the front of the class

The hazards of being a schoolteacher ring loud and clear in The Teacher's Lounge, Germany's official entry in the Academy Award race for best international feature film. Directed by Ilker Çatak, with a screenplay by Çatak and Johannes Duncker, The Teacher's Lounge is a nail-biting social thriller about the elusive nature of truth in a world with no trust. And make no mistake, although set in a school, the actions that take place might as well be happening in a political boardroom or newsroom. Children are just mini adults, after all, and this situation reflects the state of culture today.

Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) works as a school teacher and truly has her students' best interest at heart. Her idealistic spirit still believes that doing the right thing will reap awards. Only, in this age of misinformation, widespread agreement on what constitutes the right thing is lacking. Tensions are high at the school because of a series of unsolved thefts. The teachers and staff seem to suspect a student is to blame, but Carla believes it's another adult. In an effort to catch the real thief and exonerate her students, Carla decides to take matters in her own hands. Even though she catches the perpetrator on camera (kind of), the evidence is far from conclusive.

A boy sitting at a school desk has his head on top of his hands
Leonard Stettnisch as OSKAR in THE TEACHER'S LOUNGE

Her vigilante efforts to catch a thief impact everyone and seem to only cause further pain and chaos. Worst of all, the person most hurt seems to be Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), Carla's favorite student. As the stakes rise, Carla tries to stem the tide of quickly cascading rumors about her actions.

Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann shoots the film in 4:3 ratio, a style often used to tell more intimate stories from one person's perspective. The camera stays on Carla or in her perspective the entire movie, with many segments filmed as long one-take shots. We see what she sees and interpret how she feels by the things in her focus. The camera often follows her through the hallways from one room to another at school, from one meeting to another, never cutting away. This style amplifies the tension of the story as Carla tries to dodge further questions from confused students, angry parents, and co-workers. She has lessons to teach, after all! Director Çatak helps us to imagine trying to stay on task with an orchestra of demands ever on your heels.

Students in a classroom raise their hand
The school setting feels authentic, due in no small part to the work of casting director Alexandra Montag (who worked under legendary casting director Simone Bär), who gathered an energetic group of students and staff to populate this microcosm. Classroom sessions feel unscripted and natural, allowing us to observe the drama like the proverbial flies on the wall. Carla's interactions with the students are some of the most fascinating parts of the story, particularly her dynamic with Oskar. Carla appreciates how his brain allows him to work out math problems that elude his peers. But she's careful never to show partiality. When Oskar turns against her to protect his Mom, Carla works overtime to protect him, even above her own interests.

All of this interpersonal dynamic makes for a fascinating portrait of society's tendency to turn against whoever steps out of bounds and the dangers of getting involved. Carla feels confident that the thief is an adult and hates that her students receive "guilty until proven innocent" treatment from the adults. In an attempt to align herself with students, she decides to catch a thief. But as soon as she pokes her head out of the hole of obedience to authority, it's Carla whose neck appears on the chopping block. In a world of virtue signaling and social justice warriors, we all have to decide when to shut up and when to speak out. Carla makes a choice and reaps the consequences. The Teacher's Lounge is one of the best and most relevant films of the year.

Release info: In limited theaters now.

Final score: 4 out of 5

Teacher's Lounge movie poster