In a penetrating essay on the life and work of Salvador Dalí, George Orwell observed the following about intellectual ambition: “It seems to be, if not the rule, at any rate distinctly common for an intellectual bent to be accompanied by a non-rational, even childish urge in the same direction.” Orwell was thinking mainly of artists and scientists, but I am sure he would have agreed that the same is true of politicians––that urges to hold office and curry favor with the crowd are often more explicable in terms of childish fancies of kings and courts than they are in terms of highbrow things like duty and virtue.

İlker Çatak, the German-Turkish director and screenwriter, is clearly aware of this idea, and in his latest film, The Teachers’ Lounge (Das Lehrerzimmer), he goes some way toward proving its validity. He presents, on the one hand, an engrossing scandal at a German high school; and, on the other, a political allegory in which the school is regarded not just as a state unto itself, but as one in the midst of civil war, complete with rebels, whistleblowers, and an unpopular ruling class. The effect is undeniably tense and thrilling, yet one wonders whether the point, which was so splendidly articulated by Jean Vigo in Zéro de conduite, is here stated as soundly and forcefully as it might have been.

The story concerns a series of thefts that occur in an ordinary high school; the efforts of one teacher, Carla Nowak, to find the culprit; and the outrage that ensues when she accuses the school administrator, Ms. Kuhn. The idea for the film was apparently inspired by true events, though it is hard to tell just how much of the original story has made it onto the screen, since the external world is largely shut out and every detail has been made to fit the frenzied rhythms of Carla’s mind. Yet there is a discernible reality in the film owing to Leonie Benesch’s wonderful performance. As the proud but timid schoolteacher, she is entirely believable, and there is a mysterious, unpredictable self-consciousness to her demeanor, which, depending on one’s own state of mind, appears to foreshadow either a nervous breakdown or a fit of rage. This performance is supported by the equally brilliant Eva Löbau as the frequently rain-soaked Ms. Kuhn, and the young German actor Leonard Stettnisch as Ms. Kuhn’s cunning and desperate son, whose neutral expression has a kind of Kuleshovian utility.

In the end, one can imagine that most audiences will be quite happy with the moral but may balk at the suspicious ease with which the central conflict is resolved, and will be left wishing that the evidence against Ms. Kuhn, which implicates her beyond any reasonable doubt, had not been handled so clumsily; that dramatic convenience had not been privileged over reality itself; that the score, by Marvin Miller, had not been used mainly to resuscitate the editing; and, perhaps above all else, that Çatak had not been so enamored of his symbols, which, for all their soundness and consistency, are about as contrived as a Bond villain fingering an ivory chess set. Still, it is an admirable effort.

The Teachers’ Lounge is now in limited release.

Grade: B-

No more articles