Toronto 2023 Review: THE TEACHERS LOUNGE, A Dazzling Lesson In How Society Crumbles

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
Toronto 2023 Review: THE TEACHERS LOUNGE, A Dazzling Lesson In How Society Crumbles
I took no notes while watching The Teachers’ Lounge. This is rare for me in a festival environment, where I am seeing a lot of films in a short period of time. Yea, I am *that guy* who brings a little writing pad to the cinema, and scribbles things down. From the very first frame, and the very first note of what might perhaps be the best film score of the year, to the final magnificent shot, there was simply no need, even for a keener like myself.

This film is instantly recognizable as a classic.

Teachers in every institution of learning, everywhere, should use one of their professional development days to watch and think about this film. The students should probably study it as well. So should the parents. It is highly specific to Germany, but completely universal to the human condition, in the same way that Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar winning Parasite was a few years ago (and in a more circumlocutory fashion, as is Jonathan Glazer’s Zone of Interest this year.)
When a spate of small thefts take place in a affluent public middle school, it seems more about the ethical point of the thing than to catch the thief over what loose change has gone missing. Things go off the rails early, however, when the fussy principal declares random searches of the students, carried out by overzealous educators out of their depth. This is done on a voluntary basis, particularly for the students. Given the power dynamics, this is what is called in the corporate world, “volun-told” (the ironic and clever English portmanteau even sounds like a German word).

When these searches yield no immediate results, an enterprising young teacher Carla, thinks proactively, outside the box, independant, certainly. She sets up a bit of entrapment in the staff lounge -- in the form of the low hanging fruit of a vulnerable and cash-loaded wallet, captured by her laptop’s webcam, which is left running. 
The resulting illicit video implicates one of the admin staff, if not quite definitively. Rather a bit of fabric-design on a unique piece of clothing (which echoes, very subtly, not accidentally, a Star of David) worn by one of the office front desk staff, also Turkish immigrant, and the mother of Carla’s brightest student. Since the proof is not entirely clear, but certainly points in the right direction, an executive decision is made to things on the down-low, and trust the bureaucratic process. The resulting complete lack of transparency, in the face of unofficial accusations and a very official leave of absence, sends the school into a legitimate moral (and ethical) panic. The student newspaper gets the scoop of the year, and runs with it.
Rinse. Repeat.
The parents go ballistic at the school search methodology, the guerrilla surveillance, and the lack of concrete answers. The teachers fear for their jobs in the ensuing publicity mess. Racism, identity politics, and tween bullying ensue.
The eponymous teachers’ lounge maybe the scene of the crime, but the crucible is Carla’s classroom, as everyone takes sides. Her pedagogical authority, seen early in the film as a ritual song and quiet order, goes out the window. She goes through a spectrum of emotional and professional conflicting states as the stakes keep getting higher. Any kind of acceptable exit strategy is rapidly disappearing. Leonie Benesch, who was one of the kids in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, plays the Carla — a dark-as-hell analog to Matthew Broderick’s casting journey from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Election. She is often right, she is definitely trying, but she is very very wrong as well. People make mistakes. Things get out of hand. Should she be punished for her bad judgement, or the intensification of the results from her initiative done only with the best of intentions? Should what happens in the teachers' lounge stay in the teachers' lounge?
And, what is a school, beyond a collection of corridors and chambers? Director Ilker Çatak makes excellent use of students, admins staff, and teachers stridently stalking these corridors, stopping for pregnant looks in these liminal spaces, and primal screams in the classroom. The score is an ever escalating rhythm of strong bow-strings, a canon of increasing tensions, with ticking time-bomb bleeps that amplifies the scenario into its own kind of cinematic frenzy. 
The Teachers’ Lounge is a perfect demonstration of the fragility of our 21st century social contract. Particularly so in western democracies. It shows how tribalism, grievance, and above all out of control rumour, can rip a society (or a microcosm of one, in the form of a middle school) to shreds on a dime. Revolutionaries and villains are hammered out in the seething caldron. And it does so by not talking down to its audience, nor by preaching to the choir. Even as the parents talk down to the teachers, and the teachers take down to the students, who a driven to rise up against tyranny. This is provocative and smart cinema, Mandatory viewing. It deserves every award it will inevitably receive. I hope it never gets remade for American audiences, because it is damn near perfect as is. Take note.

The Teachers' Lounge

  • Ilker Çatak
  • Johannes Duncker
  • Ilker Çatak
  • Leonie Benesch
  • Leonard Stettnisch
  • Eva Löbau
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Eva LöbaufascismGermanyIlker ÇatakLeonard StettnischLeonie BeneschMARVIN MILLERPedagogyThe Teachers LoungeTheftJohannes DunckerDrama

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