Collective screams

Leonie Benesch as teacher Carla Nowak

Patrick Mulcahy on a compelling school drama

Towards the end of co-writer-director Ilker Çarak’s tightly wound school set drama, “Das Lehrerzimmer” (‘The Teacher’s Lounge’), dedicated Polish-born sixth grade teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) leads her class in a collective scream. By this point, Carla is at odds with her students, having collectively decided not to cooperate with homework or participate in exercises. Screaming unlocks them. But it does not solve the problem.

Decidedly not an advert for a career in education, “The Teacher’s Lounge” reminds us that adults are particularly vulnerable in front of a group of five-to-eighteen-year-olds with their mix of testing questions and confrontational silence. No teacher knows what goes on in the mind of a child, what they bring with them to the classroom. Çarak exploits the ambiguity to chilling effect.

The title refers to the teacher’s common room, their haven away from children’s misbehaviour, where they drink coffee, mark papers, and gossip. In response to a spate of robberies, teachers have interviewed two class representatives in an attempt to identify the culprit. Ali, a Turkish boy with the most money in his wallet is singled out as the main suspect, but his parents defend him, alleging he was given money to purchase a video game as a present. “If he was lying, I would beat him,” the father says. Against their moral scruples, the teachers ignore this. They might alternatively conclude that Ali was not a perpetrator, rather at risk.

Çarak’s subject is the gulf between acceptable behaviour in the modern world and the need to keep order. How can you prevent anarchy without threats, even though warnings may violate human rights? You can’t expect a child to sign up to a code of conduct. Instead, rules are imposed through common understanding. But what happens when children use their agency against adults?

The drama is filled with such conundrums, distilled into its ninety-five-minute running time and mostly taking place on the school premises. Carla’s mistake is that she decides to use the video on her laptop to determine whether one of the school staff members is a thief. This puts her into conflict with Mrs Kuhn (Eva Löbau) whose blouse identifies her as the woman reaching into Carla’s jacket pocket when her possessions are unattended. Mrs Kuhn is granted leave, but this affects her son, Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), who insists that his mother is innocent and, at one point, offers Carla his savings (62 Euro). When Carla refuses, Oskar threatens her. During a parent-teacher meeting, Mrs Kuhn turns up and weaponizes her grievance.

Throughout Carla tries to do the right thing, even though she has violated the right of privacy of her colleagues. They mostly overlook it because they understand why Carla attempted to entrap the school thief, although there is a lingering lack of respect for her. Even when Oskar’s behaviour changes, Carla defends him. She hangs on to the principle that children are essentially innocent and can be moulded through positive behaviour, loaning a Rubik’s cube to Oskar for him to demonstrate his intelligence.

With Mrs Kuhn threatening legal action, Carla’s position gets steadily worse. In a telling scene, Carla looks out of the window and watches Oskar meeting with other children, plotting against her. He has status – and is using it. Then Carla honours a promise to give an interview to the school magazine, where questions quickly turn to the situation in her class.

The film also tackles another social problem. How do you deal with adults who refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Mrs Kuhn is affronted by Carla’s accusation. When she sees the video, identifying her blouse, she denies that she is the woman in the video.  Çarak’s bigger subject is perceptions of white victimhood – a reaction to rights upheld for minorities – and an attempt to act with impunity. It is the mindset that has stoked populism, turned “woke” into an insult and attempts to reassert false distinctions between “them” and “us.” Carla is sensitive to perceptions of her Polish heritage. She wants to be treated as German. No teacher in the school wants to be perceived as racist. However, these factors increase teacher vulnerability.

At the start of class, Carla physicalises her students” behaviour, getting them to stand up and perform a sort of chest-beating exercise as they greet the day. “We only do that because of you,” a child tells her later, accusing Carla of infantilising them. “It’s for first graders.” What we see as rapport is used against her.

‘The Teacher’s Lounge” ends with a stand-off, with the conclusion a sort of Pyrrhic victory. Çarak returns to a point he makes at the beginning of the film, that two answers are always possible and demonstrated as proof rather than supposition. Order is maintained even as it is destroyed in this compelling, in a class of its own, drama.

 “The Teacher’s Lounge” opens in UK cinemas on Friday 12 April 2024

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