'The Teachers' Lounge' Challenges Viewers with Thrilling Lessons

Directed by İlker Çatak

Starring Leonie Benesch, Michael Klammer, Rafael Stachoviak, Anne-Kathrin Gummich, Eva Löbau, Kathrin Wehlisch, Sarah Bauerett, Leonard Stettnisch

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

BY Courtney SmallPublished Jan 23, 2024


It's difficult to stand on the sands of truth when the waters of assumption erode the ground beneath our feet — a lesson Carla Novak (Leonie Benesch), a Polish immigrant teaching math and physical education at a German school, learns the hard way in İlker Çatak's gripping and compelling thriller The Teachers' Lounge, Germany's 2023 submission to the Academy for Best International Feature Film.

Carla considers herself a good person, someone who tries to curb injustice when she sees it. She informs her students of their rights when her colleagues try to pry information from them without going through proper protocol, and attempts to smooth things over after a Turkish student is racially profiled for a crime he didn't commit. However, even those who strive to walk the path of the virtuous aren't immune to tripping over their own biases.

When cash repeatedly goes missing at the school, the pressure to catch the mysterious thief intensifies. While some of her fellow teachers, such as domineering Thomas Liebenwerda (Michael Klammer), believe the culprit to be a student, Carla isn't convinced. Putting on her amateur sleuthing hat, she sets up a trap in the teachers' lounge using her laptop to record the crime in action.

Capturing the theft of her own money on camera, it looks to be an open-and-shut case in her eyes and those of the audience. Although the thief's face is hidden from view, the distinctive star pattern of the blouse in the video points to her colleague Friederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau). When confronting Friederike directly yields no results, Carla feels she has no choice but to escalate things to the principal, which inadvertently creates a wave of allegations that flood the school.

As the gossip spreads and Carla begins to question her own actions, The Teachers' Lounge ratchets up the tension. Each new decision she makes in the hopes of setting the record straight only pushes her further into an uncomfortable corner.

Creating a claustrophobic and cringe-inducing atmosphere, the school in Çatak's film slowly evolves into a suffocating prison that Carla cannot seem to escape — one where the pressure to pick a side is far more intense than the quest to get to the truth of the matter. As the filmmaker effectively shows, fear and paranoia to be the foundations of the hive mindset.

The Teachers' Lounge not only challenges the viewer to reflect on their own tendency to make rash judgements with very little facts, but also on the individuals whose lives are impacted by these uninformed assumptions. This point hits home when Carla finds herself in a battle of wills with one of her students, Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), who also happens to be Friederike's son.

By setting the film within a school, an institution commonly associated with growth and open-mindedness, Çatak finds plenty of tension and unease in the increasingly restrictive environment. As Carla frantically tries to resolve the situation, the camera intensifies the sense of claustrophobia by focusing on her face as the power dynamics around her shift.

Anchored by Benesch's sensational turn as Carla, a woman pulled in every direction except the path she desperately wants to take, Çatak masterfully constructs a riveting thriller that sustains its tension to the very end. Leaving the audience to be judge and jury while simultaneously exposing our own tendency for biased assumption, The Teachers' Lounge captivates as a reminder that truth isn't always in the eye of the beholder.

(Mongrel Media)

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