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In ‘The Teachers’ Lounge,’ One Middle School as Microcosm of a Troubled World

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A white woman with red hair pulled back into a ponytail rests her chin on her hand. She has a slight black eye.
Leonie Benesch in ‘The Teachers’ Lounge.’  (Judith Kaufmann/ Sony Pictures Classics via AP)

What happens in the teachers’ lounge, anyway? When we were kids, that closed door seemed so tantalizingly forbidding, though it probably only hid some coffee-sipping, light chitchat and paper-grading.

Well, not in the brilliantly taut and absorbing The Teachers’ Lounge, in which that room — and gradually, the whole school around it — hosts an expanding web of uneasy power dynamics, mutual suspicion and misinformation, and that’s just for starters. This film also explores cancel culture, institutional racism, privacy rights and even censorship and press freedom.

That’s a lot for one middle school. But writer-director Ílker Çatak pulls it off, aided by excellent performances all around and two truly superb ones: Leonie Benesch as an idealistic new teacher and a heartbreaking Leo Stettnisch as her troubled student. (The film, Germany’s submission to the Academy Awards, has justifiably made the short list for best international feature.)

The Teachers’ Lounge dives immediately into the controversy that will tear this modern, bustling school apart. Carla Nowak (Benesch) is called to an uncomfortable meeting between school officials and two student representatives of her sixth-grade class. The students are being grilled as to which fellow classmates may have been responsible for a series of thefts — essentially, they’re being asked to denounce friends without evidence. Carla is angry at the tactic, but lacks the confidence to speak out.

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She’s even more appalled by what happens next: The principal and her colleagues come to her classroom, ask the girls to leave and force the boys to surrender their wallets for inspection (why only boys?) Of course, the adults note unconvincingly, the process is entirely voluntary — but if the students have nothing to hide, there’s nothing to fear. One boy seems to have a lot of money, but his Turkish immigrant parents, summoned to the school, explain indignantly (in a typically bristling, beautifully modulated scene) that they’d given him money to buy a video game as a gift. They argue that he’s being racially profiled.

Already, back in the teachers’ lounge, Carla is clashing with her more aggressive colleagues. And then, in her misguided zeal to identify the real thief and exonerate her kids, she steps right into an ethical morass.

Leaving her wallet in her coat on a chair, and setting her laptop camera to record, she soon has video evidence — just an arm, in a distinctive blouse — of someone stealing from her pocket. It only takes a moment to track down the wearer of that blouse.

Perhaps because Benesch is such an effortlessly empathetic actor, she makes Carla’s decision to confront the person she suspects — and then, to hand over the video — feel logical, like something anyone might do. But her action raises issues of privacy rights, and puts her on a collision course with not only the accused school employee but that employee’s child, Oskar (Stettnisch), an intelligent and sensitive boy in her class.

At every step, it seems, Carla’s earnest efforts to do the right thing — by her students, and by her job — land her into ever hotter water. And then, she must navigate an angry group of parents on parent-teacher night, an experience so harrowing it leaves her heaving on a bathroom floor, blowing into a bag.

Angry parents, suspicious colleagues — can it get worse? Yes, when Carla is interviewed by the student newspaper, an intriguing subplot raising questions of censorship. Carla, rightfully concerned about how she will be portrayed, asks to see the article in advance, and when the students (also rightfully!) defy her, the principal ends up banning distribution of the paper on campus.

“What happens in the teachers’ lounge, stays in the teachers’ lounge,” Carla says in that student newspaper interview, her definition of a “no comment.” That is, however, hardly what transpires, as Carla, despite her best intentions, begins to drown in a swamp of her own making, with seemingly no way out.

All the students have been thoughtfully cast here, and perform with a natural quality rare in movies about kids. As for Stettnisch, he darned near breaks our hearts as he ultimately loses control and threatens his own future.

A young boy in a striped t-shirt stands in a circle with other children. They are all holding each other's arms.
(L) Leo Stettnisch in ‘The Teachers’ Lounge.’ (Judith Kaufmann/ Sony Pictures Classics via AP)

As for Benesch, from whom the camera rarely departs, she has a luminous presence that carries the film. So skillfully does she draw us in, in fact, that it’s easy to forget we hardly know anything about Carla: Is she in a relationship? What is her family like? We never see her home, nor anyone’s home, nor even a glimpse of the outside world.

But the outside world certainly finds its way into the school. Çatan and co-writer Johannes Duncker, who in fact attended school together, are making the point that even a middle school is a microcosm of society and all its tensions and ills. Perhaps that is why their film ends without clear answers: In school, as in life, one cannot simply close a door, keep out the bad stuff, and solve everything.

‘The Teachers’ Lounge’ was released in select cities on Dec. 25, 2023. It will screen at Sonoma’s Sebastiani Theater on Jan. 11, 2024, as part of the Sonoma International Film Festival.

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