Film Review: ‘The Teachers’ Lounge’ Instructs the Oppressed in Power Politics

Ms. Nowak has a simple question for her twelve-year-old students: “Is .9999 the same as 1?” When a student named Hatice points out that .9999 is not “actually” the same as one, Nowak takes notice of the qualifier. “Then please come up to the board and show us why not.” The camera follows Hatice in the center of the frame as Nowak hands the chalk to her and steps aside, allowing the student to take the role of teacher and explain her reasoning. 

“So is this a proof or an assumption?” Nowak asks the class. Nowak repeats this process when a quiet boy called Oskar offers his own interpretation. She stands aside and the camera focuses on Oskar in the teacher role, 

For some viewers, Nowak’s methodology embodies the dialogic model of teaching that Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire describes in his foundational text, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As opposed to the capitalist banking method of teaching, in which the teacher deposits information into the head of student subjects, the dialogue method equips students to free the oppressed and the oppressor by allowing the students to instruct the teacher. 

But others might notice the editing of the scene. While the camera puts Hatice (Elsa Krieger) and Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch) in the center of the frame, it does not stay there. Instead, we often cut back to Ms. Nowak (Leonie Benesch), watching her facial expressions as she judges their process. 

This simple scene captures the tension of the German movie The Teachers’ Lounge, opening across the country this weekend. For all of the faculty’s lofty intentions, they cannot escape the power imbalance around them, which teaches their students more insidious lessons. 

Directed by Ilker Çatak, who co-wrote the script with Johannes Duncker, The Teachers’ Lounge follows a minor crisis in a peaceful German school. Amidst a series of petty thefts, the faculty follows procedure and holds a conference, including two representatives of the student body. But when the conversation produces no evidence, teacher Liebenwerda (Michael Klammer) presents a list of students to the representatives and asks them to indicate who among their classmates might be a suspect. 

The maneuver upsets Nowak, a relative newcomer to the school. But when she becomes a victim of theft, she takes the matter into her own hands, secretly recording her unattended jacket. Based on the inconsequential—and likely illegally obtained—evidence she finds, Nowak accuses the administrative assistant, Ms. Kuhn (Eva Löbau). The charge soon spirals out of control, affecting Kuhn’s bright son Oskar, and breeding mistrust among the parents. 

On one hand, The Teachers’ Lounge does not escalate its story beyond the bounds of the school. The movie never leaves school grounds, with the only indications of the outside world coming in the form of phone calls and occasional glances out of the windows. However, one cannot help but feel Çatak and his fellow creatives teaching us viewers a lesson. The slim, eighty-nine-minute movie remains focused on its central theme so that any moment not directly related to the investigation and its fallout reveals itself to be a metaphor for the issue. 

Take the aforementioned proof scene, in which the question, “Is this a proof or an assumption?” changes from an example of Nowak’s teaching methods to the movie’s thematic inquiry within minutes. Before Nowak can complete her session, the principal, Dr. Böhm (Anne-Kathrin Gummich), and other teachers enter the classroom, excuse the girls, and ask the boys to place their wallets on their desks. As the teachers go through each wallet, insisting that the students are voluntarily complying with their requests, Nowak shakes with anger and disgust. She does not say, but we can see the question on her worried face: Is this a proof or an assumption?

This focus on theme affects not just the plot of The Teachers’ Lounge, but also its aesthetic choices. Çatak and director of photography Judith Kaufmann use the boxy 4:4 aspect ratio, shrinking the frame to a single confining square. Kaufmann fills the scene with natural light, which over-saturates the images, intensifying the colors to an overwhelming degree. She pairs this palette with handheld cameras and many close-ups on students’ faces, making every interaction, every quiet moment feel at once natural and unreal. 

Çatak rarely employs the score by Marvin Miller, reserving it for moments of tension or reflection. Miller’s use of plinking violins and screeching strings recalls a classy modern horror movie, such as 2018’s Hereditary. Together, these elements show viewers that nothing escapes the confines of the school’s power structures, not even Nowak’s good intentions. 

Such a claustrophobic approach may be off-putting to some viewers. The Teachers’ Lounge often feels didactic and single-minded, so that even more absurd scenes—such as the investigation by the school’s surprisingly dogged student newspaper scene—pummel the audience with its point. But more than laziness, the focus underscores the movie’s presentation of learning environments. In the same way that every aspect of the school is designed to instruct students, every aspect of the film—from its framing to its performances to its soundscapes—works to instruct the viewer. The Teachers’ Lounge wants us to know that we’re being taught, to feel the omnipresent weight of expectation as we watch. 

American viewers cannot help but consider the school-to-prison pipeline in the United States, in which our schools teach children to be either producers of capital or prisoners relegated to the sidelines.

This is especially important for Americans watching The Teachers’ Lounge. Despite the geographical distance, we, in the United States, recognize many of the underlying social issues at work at the school. The first child accused of stealing is Ali (Can Rodenbostel), whose immigrant parents take offense that their child should be singled out. That offense only intensifies when, after they speak to one another in their native language at a parent-teacher conference, Böhm insists they all talk in German. When Kuhn responds to Nowak’s accusation by opening her wallet and showing it empty, we think of the class distinctions that pit impoverished teachers against equally exploited administrative workers. 

Moreover, Americans cannot help but consider the school-to-prison pipeline in the United States, in which our schools teach children to be either producers of capital or prisoners relegated to the sidelines. With its well-meaning and even good teachers such as Nowak, The Teachers’ Lounge shows how even the most innocent decision reverberates with impressionable children. 

For all of its rigid formality, The Teachers’ Lounge moves toward abstraction as it reaches its conclusion. That includes an oft-publicized late scene in which Nowak leads her students in a primal scream, standing in front of the class, closing her eyes, and screeching, while the children do the same. 

According to Freire, dialogue in teaching works only when all the participants offer “true questions”—questions that get at the present moment and the power structures that shape it. Viewers of the The Teachers’ Lounge may differ on whether or not Nowak ever poses a true question. 

But when she screams and the students scream, we viewers feel impelled to scream too, angry at our school system and the way it repeats/reproduces class antagonisms, and angry at the way it involves us all, even our best teachers. Even if The Teachers’ Lounge never poses a true question, that moment of screaming will at least prompt such a question in viewers: “How do we end this?” And that’s exactly the type of question that destroys assumptions and looks for truths, a lesson that could not be more important. 

The Teachers’ Lounge is now playing in theaters across the country.