THE TEACHERS’ LOUNGE (Das Lehrerzimmer)

Producer: Ingo Fliess   Director: İlker Çatak   Screenplay: İlker Çatak and Johannes Duncker   Cast: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch, Eva Löbau, Michael Klammer, Rafael Stachoviak, Sarah Bauerett, Kathrin Wehlisch, Anne-Kathrin Gummich, Oscar Zickur, Antonia Küpper, Elsa Krieger, Can Rodenbostel, Padmé Hamdemir, Lisa Marie Trense and Vincent Stachowiak   Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: B+

Good intentions prove ruinous in İlker Çatak’s breathlessly paced drama about a principled teacher’s effort to investigate a series of petty thefts in a German high school.

Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch), a recent hire and Polish émigré, is introduced during what amounts to an interrogation of Lukas (Oscar Zickur) and Jenny (Antonia Küpper), the two students who serve as class reps on the school’s oversight board, in a conference room on campus.  Her overbearing colleague Thomas Liebenwerda (Michael Klammer) and Principal Bettina Böhm (Anne-Kathrin Gummich) are badgering them to identify any fellow students they think might be behind the thefts.  They eventually point to Ali (Can Rodenbostel), a Turkish immigrant, and then Böhm and teacher Milosz Dudek (Rafael Stachowiak), a fellow Pole who’s close to Carla (she has to remind him they should converse in German), conduct a search of her class that reveals money in the boy’s wallet.

When that leads to a session with Ali’s parents, who angrily refute the charge, Nowak decides to set up a sting of her own, using her wallet as bait and her laptop to record who lifts it.  The result points to the school’s efficient if spiky office manager Friederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau), who denies the accusation and stalks off campus.   Liebenwerda and his equally volatile associate Vanessa König (Sarah Bauerett) demand action, but Dudek raises legal issues about the infringement of privacy that Carla’s recording of Kuhn involved, and school counselor Lore Semnik (Kathrin Wehlisch) advises proceeding with caution. For Nowak there’s a personal difficulty as well, since Kuhn’s son Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), a sensitive kid who excels in math, is in her class, and he takes the suspicion against his mother hard.

The atmosphere is aggravated by the other students.  Some continue to harass Ali.  Others rally around Oskar.  And the editors of the student newspaper, smelling a scandal, lure Carla into agreeing to an interview where they ambush her with uncomfortable questions and then quickly print a story with some doubtful innuendo.  The campus roils with controversy, and Nowak is caught in the middle.

Çatak and co-writer Johannes Duncker build a feeling of grim inevitability in their script, and Çatak and her technical team—cinematographer Judith Kaufmann and editor Gesa Jäger—play things out at a mostly breakneck pace, working with production designer Zazie Knepper to create the impression of an progressively frenzied crisis occurring in a cramped, claustrophobic pressure-cooker environment where the occasional pause merely increases the tautness.   Meanwhile Marvin Miller’s subtly brooding score and Kirsten Kunhardt’s resonant sound design add to the atmosphere of growing desperation, leading to an outcome that’s a profoundly sad commentary on an educational institution’s inability to handle complicated situations.  It doesn’t matter that Çatak and Duncker don’t provide a clear answer to the question of whodunit. 

Benesch anchors the film as a teacher who creates chaos by trying to do the right thing, and her colleagues are all well played, with Klammer and Gummich standouts among them, while Löbau transforms from brittle efficiency to fierce rage as the accused.  But it’s the students who, in the final analysis, leave the greatest impression—the surrounding gaggle that includes Zickur, Küpper, Rodenbostel, Elsa Krieger, Padmé Hamdemir, Lisa Marie Trense and Vincent Stachowiak but particularly Stettnisch, who conveys both Oskar’s initial quiet moodiness and his later bursts of fury with uncommon conviction.    What amounts to a final showdown between teacher and student is deeply compelling and poignant, since one can’t help feeling sympathy for them both.

“The Teachers’ Lounge” is a tense, troubling tale of how a dedicated teacher’s desire to help both her school and her students goes terribly wrong.