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It's not easy to make an intense thriller about things that happen every day. But when one appears, it's glorious.
Ilker Çatak’s "The Teacher's Lounge" is glorious. It's probably the best thriller of this type since "Uncut Gems," another movie where just watching realistic characters making bad decisions was so nerve-wracking that it made you want to crawl under your seat. I don't know if it quite earns the somewhat muted, art cinema-styled, "It's up to you to decide what happens next" ending that it ultimately gives us; but that's a tiny fraction of the movie's compact running time, which otherwise puts us in the headspace of a young teacher at a German secondary school where an outbreak of stealing has made everyone paranoid and edgy, leading them to make choices they're going to regret later, if they have a shred of decency (some of them may not).
Leonie Benesch (of “The Crown”) plays Carla Nowak, a Polish emigre teaching math and physical education. She’s an idealist about education and the obligation of citizens to look out for each other. She’s a do-gooder—a bit nosy, but mostly in a constructive way. When one her kids gets hauled out of class to be accused of stealing (due to an anonymous tip about the unusual amount of cash he has in his wallet) Carla has to sit in on a conference with the boy and his parents as they explain that they gave him the money so he could buy a videogame and suggest that it’s racism (they’re Turkish) that put them in this humiliating predicament.
It seems like a convincing explanation. Carla believes it. But the event deepens her fear of theft. The next time she’s on break in the teachers’ lounge and has to leave it, she keeps her laptop open with the video camera secretly running. When she returns, she finds some cash missing from the wallet she left in her inside coat pocket. A check of the recording shows somebody taking money from her wallet while she was out of the room.
And it’s here that the movie refines its paranoid thriller aesthetic: just as you never saw the lodging of the accusation against the boy, much less whether he stole cash from somebody else, you also don’t really see who stole Carla’s money, just one sleeve of a blouse with a star pattern on it. The same kind of blouse was worn by a staffer working in an office just a few feet away from the teachers’ lounge, and she could have seen Carla leave the lounge because she had a plain view of it through a large plate-glass window. We side with Carla when she identifies this woman as the thief, because what are the odds that two women in a not-large school wore the same distinctive blouse that day?
But as the film goes on and the complications pile up, we start to doubt our certainty, as does Carla, who quickly starts to wish that she’d kept her mouth shut, about the stealing and pretty much everything else. The staffer that she accused has a son in her class. The boy is understandably distraught and angry when his mother is suspended pending an investigation. It appears that he then orchestrates a campaign to defame her in the eyes of his classmates in her parents; I write “appears” because even though the boy specifically warns Carla to apologize to his mother or suffer consequences, we aren’t privy to what, if anything, he actually did to make good on this promise. Throughout, Çatak gives us closeups of various characters that make us think “That person is lying” or “That person is a thief” or simply “That person is plotting against Carla." But the movie is so firmly rooted in Carla’s point-of-view that we doubt our assessments as often as she doubts hers. (As it turns out, Carla put her job in jeopardy just by making the recording: apparently there’s a law or rule against unauthorized personal surveillance on the property, and she broke it.)
It’s probably best to think of the film as a parable of sorts, one where an everyday institution is presented realistically, with correct procedural details, but also stands in for a larger system or set of ideals, like the jury room in “Twelve Angry Men” or the ship in a mutiny story. The film handles national, racial and class resentments as subtly as it handles everything else. They're factors in everything that happens (Carla, being Polish, comes in for a bit of “other-ization” herself). But we aren’t sure about the specifics because so much happens out of our (and Carla’s) sight. The directing, cinematography (by Judith Kaufmann) and editing (by Gesa Jäger) are exceptional. Every choice is assertive and precise but rarely seems labored. Simplicity is key. A lot of the movie consists of steady handheld shots of people talking, walking, and moving through the frame, often without music, although composer Marvin Miller's dissonant, unnerving strings sometimes rise up and seem to swirl around Carla and jab at her.
You know when you’re having one of those days or weeks where something bad happens, and your response to it makes it worse, and the response to your response causes an escalation that makes everything worse still, and it all just keeps going and going, and you start to feel as if you’re digging yourself deeper and deeper into a hole? That’s “The Teacher’s Lounge.” Some of you are going to read that and think, “Thanks for the warning; there’s no way I am going to ever watch this,” while others will plan on seeing it as soon as possible.
If you do see it, you'll come away knowing that you’ve seen a proper movie, with its own theme and distinct aesthetic and strong personality, not just another piece of flavorless “content.” Çatak and co-writer Johannes Duncker have tapped into a largely unexplored subcategory of the thriller, one with unlimited potential to illuminate everyday life.
Leonie Benesch as Carla Nowak
Leonard Stettnisch as Oskar
Eva Löbau as Friederike Kuhn
Michael Klammer as Thomas Liebenwerda
Rafael Stachowiak as Milosz Dudek
Sarah Bauerett as Vanessa König
Kathrin Wehlisch as Lore Semnik
Anne-Kathrin Gummich as Dr. Bettina Böhm