Schoolyard, Warzone, Classroom, Courtroom: The Teachers’ Lounge is an Homage to the Necessary Messiness of Good Intent

In The Teachers’ Lounge, director Ilker Çatak relocates the playground to the staffroom, where the slapping of lanyards and the click of heels on lino floors heralds the childishness of institutionalised grown-ups.

Idealistic young teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) finds herself at the centre of a gossip-fuelled investigation into a series of thefts at a German school. Though it is the students who are initially suspected by the staff, Nowak soon turns her sharp standards upon her colleagues. At first, it seems clever of her to bait the thief, when she uses her laptop camera record an abandoned wallet so she may catch the perpetrator. Her do-gooding, however, opens a pandora’s box of messy ethics, and she must brave the consequences of pointing the finger at one of her constituents.

Contrasted by its rich pastels and dollhouse-esque 4:3 aspect ratio, The Teachers’ Lounge dives headfirst into a discourse of heavy hitting ethics – concepts of surveillance, accountability, and the intimidation that can hide in banal, bureaucratic corners of modern education systems.

In an early scene in which three teachers question two students about the suspected thief in their midst, one adult croons to the sceptical interrogates: “co-operation is voluntary, but if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.” There are more sinister historical parallels this line evokes. Here though, we are reminded that such a tricksy and self-serving use of authority can abide in the most classic of institutions – the school. A principal at the helm, a fickle governing staff, and a student population – this setting models a mini society (there is even a hotly charged free press causing trouble for all involved), and Çatak lends the events of the film the same substance granted to ethical dilemmas that might occur on a world stage.

The Teachers’ Lounge expertly imbues the insular nature of capital-D Drama. Trapped in the in-betweens of who-said-what, we are left to float in the liminality of sprawling social tension played out in a campus hall, passageway, corridor, threshold, or stairwell. This shifting setting works to isolate Nowak from social safety. We spend a great deal of time with her see-sawing back and forth between different sites of conflict. This immediacy also traps her against something else: the impossibly intimate gaze of the audience’s judgement.

Nowak’s actions are questionable. Filming her colleagues without their consent is an unnerving violation of privacy. At times, it even feels Nowak’s efforts to lay blame to the school’s office administrator Friederike Kuhn reveal a pettiness in her character – the echoes of a tendency towards teacher’s pet that clashes awkwardly with her current role. After all, those who dob get what’s coming. But The Teachers’ Lounge makes no efforts to protect Nowak from her own actions. Instead, Nowak secures our favour through undergoing an unforgiving character analysis, and it is this quality in the film that earns it its wisdom. 

It is proximity with Nowak’s struggle that allows us to experience the intent of The Teachers’ Lounge – that virtue lies in sincerity, not a flawless moral compass. Idealism’s merits hide in the spirit of authentic communal exploration of a dispute, not the way unyielding, impartial ethics can protect us from arbitrary bureaucratic consequences of the modern organisation. The Teachers’ Lounge shows us how to delineate in discomfort, and it leads by example. In the relationship between Nowak and her bright student Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), we are shown that the intent behind why there is a pursuit of justice is just as relevant as obtaining the justice itself.

Oskar’s bashful stubbornness mirrors Nowak’s own youthful idealism. Both characters are armed with a clarity of conviction; an almost childlike expectation that in trying one’s best, one’s actions reverberate with some greater truth. There is something pure, even breakable, about Benesch’s performance that asks us to invest in the principles we had when we were young, before we learned to anticipate the world’s complexity and protect ourselves from it. Oskar is young, smart, and angry that his mother has been accused of theft. Despite (and within) the tumult of the film’s escalating tension, and the way the system sets them on a path to destroy each other, Oskar and Frau Nowak manage to recognise something of their quest for justice in the other. This relativism is the relationship at the heart of the film. When Oskar slides a solved rubix cube back across the table to Nowak, The Teachers’ Lounge shows it is often the means, not the ends that count in the course of justice.

This might all sound very moralistic, but there remains a pleasing neatness to the film, considering the scale and history of philosophical thought it calls upon to sing in the way it does (not to mention the fact it scratches my Machiavellian itch to eavesdrop on shoestring gossip).

The Teachers’ Lounge depicts a system that slyly pits the brightest minds against one another, so that their threat might be minimised. The film’s answer? Intellectual protest – the kind we have cast aside in favour of a fetishized bureaucratic rhetoric. When student and teacher are set against one another, the messiness of good intent is prized in the form of civil disobedience that one can only truly revel in if it takes place during school hours.

Director: Ilker Çatak

Cast: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch, Anne-Kathrin Gummich

Writers: Ilker Çatak, Johannes Duncker

Producer: Ingo Fliess

Music: Marvin Miller

Cinematographer: Judith Kaufmann

Editor: Gesa Jäger    

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Ruby O’Sullivan-Belfrage

Through film editing and writing, Ruby holds a space for ideas that explore the universal in the personal. She gleans creative energy from the synergy produced at the intersection of disciplines, particularly that of film, sound design and writing. Ruby’s screen work has been featured in Iceland's RVK Feminist Film Festival. She is the founding editor of Deco Radio, an audio journal that places sonic and literary artworks in conversation. Ruby has a background in film production and cinema studies. She works and plays on unceded Wurundjeri land

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