If you’re looking for a disturbing view of contemporary education, the German film, The Teachers' Lounge, is a good place to start. Director Ilker Catak takes us into a middle school where problems involving trust, perception, identity, racism, and privacy simmer toward an eruptive boil.
Sounds dire, I suppose, but in 2024, it could be just another day at school.
Catak focuses on Ms. Nowak (Leonie Benesch), a newbie teacher who wants to be fair to her students, colleagues, and herself.
Whatever calm the school knew vanishes when money is stolen from the wallet Ms. Nowak leaves in the teachers’ lounge during a break. The theft occurs in the midst of a wave of thefts that have scourged the school.
Ali (Can Rodenbostel), a kid whose parents are Turkish immigrants, becomes a suspect after the administration casts an overly broad net. Students are asked to reveal the contents of their wallets.
But wait. A video provides strong evidence that the culprit is a member of the administrative staff whose son Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch) attends the school. Oskar, who happens to be a good student, becomes an adamant defender of his mother.
Before the movie concludes, teachers, the student newspaper, and the entire student body become involved. The students tend to overgeneralize about the issues. Everyone takes sides, and the school’s atmosphere turns toxic.
Throughout the turmoil, Ms. Nowak continues trying to reach Oskar. She refuses to give up on him or turn him into an enemy. But Catak doesn’t lionize her or any of the other teachers. They’re part of a system that breeds cynicism, mistrust and confusion.
Catak moves the story to a tense beat, sometimes employing the language of a thriller, an accomplishment considering, after all, that The Teachers' Lounge is about sixth graders.
Teachers' Lounge isn't trying to be inspirational; it's an unflinching look at how a school can serve as a microcosmic example of a society in which, to borrow from the title of another movie, few do the right thing, perhaps because it’s nearly impossible to discern what that might be.*
*A note: The Teachers' Lounge this week was nominated for an Oscar in the best international feature category.