The Teacher’s Lounge

İlker Çatak’s THE TEACHER’S LOUNGE—Germany’s entry for Best International Feature at the 2024 Academy Awards and very loosely based on a true story—shows everyday conflicts spiralling out of control to the worst possible conclusion in a nail-biting social experiment. The film will not make one nostalgic for their school days but likely make many grateful for their colleagues, however quirky and challenging they can be.

Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) has an easy rapport with her class. They greet each other with a clapping game – perhaps a bit youthful for their twelve years, but warmly delivered and reciprocated – and she explains mathematical proofs in ways appropriate for their skill level, which build foundations for future more challenging equations. However, she cannot protect them from unrest brewing at school: money has gone missing several times, leading the faculty to investigate the students and profile possible suspects to the displeasure of the parents – and no proof of thefts. Some colleagues are resigned to losing their money, and some loudly proclaim their intentions to hire a private investigator. But after her cash is swiped, Carla sets a trap of her own – and the result, and each subsequent reaction and over-reaction by colleagues and students, hews closer to lobbing a Molotov cocktail at the problem than reaching any sort of closure.

This pattern plays out throughout THE TEACHER’S LOUNGE. As each new problem arises, the intentions for addressing it are (assumedly) good, but the foresight is lacking, causing every attempted solution to blow up spectacularly. To divulge further twists would do nothing to lessen the stress of Çatak’s and Johannes Duncker’s script, which – alongside uniformly naturalistic and committed performances, most impressive from its large young cast – refuses easy answers or solutions.

Benesch excellently conveys Carla’s move from confident control of her class through increasing self-doubt and uncertainty as the affability and assertiveness that make her such a good teacher end up causing bureaucratic and political problems for her. Eva Löbau gives what must certainly be one of the year’s most painfully self-pitying performances as school administrator Friederike Kuhn: one perfect for the character yet excruciating to watch. Another adult cast standout is Michael Klammer as fellow teacher Thomas Liebenwerda, whose determination to make things right is on a short fuse, setting off clashes with Carla that often inject THE TEACHER’S LOUNGE with some much-needed comic relief.

A frog-in-a-kettle study of a societal microcosm under pressure, THE TEACHER’S LOUNGE leaves audiences turning over possible truths and futures for its characters long after the credits roll. Çatak takes characters and audience through almost every possible emotion – anger, confusion, outrage, and finally, resignation to the absurd with a masterful final shot.