top of page
  • Writer's picture2filmcritics

The Teachers’ Lounge (Das Lehrerzimmer) ★★★

Availability: Still playing in some theaters nationally, and streaming for $20 on multiple platforms, including AppleTV and Amazon Prime; see Justwatch here for full streaming availability.


Truth and Consequences


Like “Up the Down Staircase,” this year’s Oscar nominee from Germany for Best International Feature is a teachers’ movie, and like that 1967 classic, which starred Sandy Dennis as Sylvia Barrett, it centers on one teacher, Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch), an intense, wide-eyed young woman who is at once neurotic, engaging, self-confident, and befuddled.

 

She believes in the power of the rational mind, in “truth”—not unlike other protagonists of 2023 films.

 

Nowak would seem to have all the skills and values to be a successful—even influential—middle-school science teacher. Whether offering lessons in astronomy (on eclipses), mathematics (on what constitutes scientific “proof”) or, more generally, the role of science in making the unpredictable predictable, she believes in the power of the rational mind, in “truth”—not unlike other protagonists of 2023 films, including Robert Hunham (“The Holdovers”), Sandra Voyter (“Anatomy of a Fall”) and, of course, Robert Oppenheimer. Confined by a school building in the contemporary modernist style (the film is shot entirely at the school), the film’s setting dovetails with Nowak’s rationalist sensibilities.


The face of German actress Leonie Benesch, left, artfully and poignantly and painfully reflects teacher Carla Nowak's transformation.





Nowak also has (or so it seems), a high “emotional IQ.” Although she’s a rigorous teacher, her classes have a touchy-feely quality, the school day beginning with a rhythmic hand-clapping ritual. She understands and cares about her students as individuals, defending them against threatened suspension or transfer and, to the penultimate scene, she believes in her ability to reach even problem students with a mix of superior communication and the lure of science. Her toolbox includes therapeutic exercises, including a group “scream” and a game designed to allow those with differences to engage in teamwork.

 

The unpredictable cannot always be made predictable.

 

The story first unfolds with the plight of a Muslim student. And Nowak, who is from Poland, needs to be reminded to speak German to “fit in.” Echoing the Palme d’Or-winning 2008 French classroom drama, “The Class,” director Ilker Çatak’s focus would seem to be racism and ethnicity. Rather, it’s the goal of Çatak (he also co-wrote the screenplay) to disrupt Nowak’s comfortable routine and set at issue her confidence in her world view, and more broadly to interrogate the rational, scientific perspective that she represents, to demonstrate and lament its erosion. Truth, we’ll learn, can be understood as subjective. Contingency will have its way. The unpredictable cannot always be made predictable. Once again “truthiness,” a concept launched in 2005 by Stephen Colbert, prevails.


Above, teacher Carla Nowak (Benesch) observes some of the unpredictable behavior her "rational" choices have unleashed in the teachers' lounge.


There have been thefts of money at the school—in that inner sanctum of remove and privilege, the teachers’ lounge, to be precise—and Nowak decides to set a trap for the thief by focusing her computer camera on her jacket, with her wallet in the pocket, and turning on the video to run while she’s out of the room. It works, and now she has “proof.” She’s uncovered the truth. Or has she?

 

The students in her class can take on the irritation and anger of a wronged, unruly, and uncontrollable crowd, or the moral superiority of Wokeism, or the passive-aggressive resistance of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener.

 

Some see her video as an “experiment,” a non-consensual, privacy-violating over-reach. Refusing to acknowledge the “proof,” the perp plays the victim card, refusing to be rational or do what—in Nowak’s view—is best for her. And Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), the perp’s son—one of Nowak’s students, and the one who most deeply shares her scientific perspective—plays the “family card.” The rabid cub reporters at the student newspaper have their own version of what’s happening, literally under the banner of “we print the truth.” As a group, the students in her class can take on the irritation and anger of a wronged, unruly, and uncontrollable crowd, or the moral superiority of Wokeism, or the passive-aggressive resistance of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener (“I’d rather not”), a position in which the sharing of ideas, scientific or otherwise, becomes impossible. Nowak’s therapeutic interventions only make matters worse. She has set in motion, and continues to set in motion, consequences she cannot control. The unpredictable remains unpredictable.


Student Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch) becomes the chief challenger to Nowak's faith in her own world view.



Çatak effectively presents a critical aspect of contemporary culture through the experience of one school and one teacher, Carla Nowak. Other characters—teachers, students, staff, parents (similar to those attacking teacher Emi in the Romanian 2021 award-winner “Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn”)—have their moments, but it’s Nowak in whom we’re interested, as she grapples with unfulfilled expectations and declining faith in her bedrock ideas and principles, her myth of control. Nowak’s transformation is artfully and poignantly and painfully presented by Benesch (who at 18 starred in Michael Haneke’s 2009 “The White Ribbon,” another Oscar nominee), etched on Nowak’s face and revealed in her posture and psyche in scene after scene—her agony our agony, her school our school. Her country, our country.

 


Teacher Nowak's (Benesch) toolbox includes therapeutic exercises, including a group “scream” she is leading here in her classroom.

 

Date: 2023

Director: Ilker Çatak

Starring: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch

Country: Germany

Languages: German, Turkish, Polish, English, subtitled in English

Runtime: 98 minutes

Oscar nominations: 2024 Best International Feature Film (Germany)

Other awards: 11 wins and 21 total nominations

126 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page