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'The Teachers' Lounge' Review: School Becomes An Idealistic Battleground | TIFF 2023

Leonie Benesch screaming in front of a chalkboard
Sony Pictures Classics

How does an institution operate under suspicions? Let us investigate. Taking a long, hard look at nobility, differences in perspective and consequences within a school system is the suffocatingly restless drama The Teachers' Lounge (Das Lehrerzimmer in German), directed by Ilker Çatak who also co-wrote the film alongside Johannes Duncker. Leonie Benesch plays Carla Nowak, a young teacher at a secondary school teaching tweens as the school's faculty begins to inspect a series of thefts. This being Carla's first job, she's entering the school with a new set of ideals and habits. Her approach gets challenged after she accuses school office clerk Friederike (Eva Löbau) of stealing, this then sparking discussions and actions amongst the staff and young students, including Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch) who's both one of Carla's students and Friederike's son.

Quite often when movies with this many kids in the cast aren't necessarily working, it's more polite to shift one's focus elsewhere but fortunately that's a good place to start when it comes to The Teachers' Lounge. Çatak and his casting director Alexandra Montag have assembled a wonderful cast, all of whom are delivering fine work, led by Benesch in the lead role whose character's ambition, frustration and second-guessing translate exceptionally in the actor's reactions and reflections. What brings all of that interaction to another level is the group of kids featured in the film who manage to consistently match the intensity and intelligence of the adult cast. It's always a real miracle when they don't lean into annoying stereotypes and a notable example of that deviation is Stetthnisch who often gives Benesch a run for her money.

It is that interplay between adults' power in perceived influence and students' power in numbers that creates the central friction, eventually impacting the ways that the faculty communicates. Çatak and Duncker examine questions about responsibility and truth through the eyes of Carla who might mean well when she speaks up or acts on the issues but can still sadly further tangle those webs.

Only during the last 15 minutes or so does Çatak lose his grip somewhat on the animosity that has at that point taken over the storytelling and made the characters fully three-dimensional. The director's subtlety combined with cinematographer Judith Kaufmann's cutthroat camera movement promises a slightly more explosive finale than we ultimately get—at least in terms of visual storytelling—so it's disappointing that the tension soon evaporates out of the classroom. Maybe it reads better on the page and you can assume it does because the rest of the film is giving you something to think about rather than stealing your patience.

Smileys: Casting, performance by a cast, screenplay, directing

Frowneys: Ending

You might solve crimes if you had a PI teacher instead of a PE teacher.


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