Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 09, 2024 8:09 pm 
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Taut school theft drama loses some of its early momentum

Germany's Best International Feature Film entry has been chosen as one of the five finalists in this year's Oscars. Titled The Teachers' Lounge, it centers on Carla Novak (Leonie Benesch), a new hire in charge of sixth grade gym and math at a liberal school where the students are vigorous and democratic. Carla grew up in Westphalia, but of Polish parents so she feels a bit of an outsider. But she is young and upright, idealistic and energetic, and and refuses to be fazed by anything. And in this tale of school controversy, there's plenty to faze her. The Teachers' Lounge is suspenseful and intense every minute (or nearly), though at the end I am not quite sure what it was all about. Perhaps solidarity with your peers and how close we are to chaos, especially in a school. It may be Germany's best offering for the year. But it's not the favorite for the best foreign film Oscar, and I think we can see why.

There has been a lot of theft going on in the school, money, possessions; there aren't many details given. First, some dubious measures are resorted to to entrap students in Carla's class when some money has disappeared. Elementary or middle school is a discipline machine. Students must follow the rituals, show up on time, leave on time, and tow the line in between. The bell rings and tells you what to do.

Administrators come into Carla's class and make the boys show the contents of their wallets. This leads to incrimination of a boy named Ali. It's doubly a mistake: it's highlighting a minority (Turkish) kid and it's unjust because he isn't guilty: the extra cash in his wallet, his outraged parents explain, was to purchase a computer game.

Things get much more complicated after that. Suspecting a thief not from students but staff, Carla sets a trap in the teachers' lounge, her wallet with money in it obvious in the pocket of her jacket on a peg, and her laptop set to photograph this when someone comes and filches. Someone steals, and the camera shows a shirt with stars printed on it. This leads to Friederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau), a school employee, whose son Oskar (the expressive Leonard Stettnisch) is a student in Carla's class. Frau Kuhn violently protests but is suspended from work.

The school authorities used Carla's computer video evidence, but other faculty are furious at her for filming them clandestinely. It gets around and eventually, Carla's math class stonewalls her. They tell her the greeting chants she had them do were offensive to them, suitable for second or third graders, not for them.

The big irony and complication planted in the plot is Oskar. He is the smartest mathematician in Carla's class. She "loans" him a Rubik's Cube (oddly, unfamiliar to him) as a home challenge (he quickly masters it) but while he may have been her pet he now despises her. Toward the end Oskar takes over the action, and his meaningful stare may be the most memorable thing in the film.

Making perhaps dubious use of a brittle percussive score by Marvin Miller to heighten tension at every possible moment, İlker Çatak maintains a taut excitement throughout the film. But this doesn't mean that it points in a clear direction. This is not Hitchcock but a post-modern world where too many issues are at stake. It's surprising that Carla emerges so seemingly unscathed and that when she offers to quit, the principal nixes that immediately. (Well, they're already understaffed.) It's also surprising that she seems to have no allies. You'd think there would be more dividing up of camps. The aim seems simply to set everyone against Carla - a situation that becomes almost surreal. And yet the point that she doesn't cooperate or bond with fellow teachers as she should isn't made is clearly as it might. Much seems to have been sacrificed in the interests of keeping trouble happening every minute.

The Teachers' Lounge brings up minorities, discipline, teaching methods and other issues in a suspenseful, entertaining package. But it's not well conceived enough, in my view, to deserve the International Feature Film Oscar - although, with exclusion of the French entry (Anatomy of a Fall from the finalists due to France choosing instead Trần Anh Hùng's The Taste of Things, my first choice is missing. The Teachers' Lounge is a finalist. The remaining nominees are: The Zone of Interest by Jonathan Glazer, United Kingdom) ; Fallen Leaves by Aki Kaurismäki, Finland; Society of the Snow by J.A. Bayona, Spain; and The Mother of All Lies by Asmae El Moudir, Morocco). The Zone of Interest, the next best choice, is the favorite.

The Teachers' Lounge/Das Lehrerzimmer, 98 min.s, debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 18, 2023, showing at Toronto, Chicago, AFI and many international festivals. US limited release Dec. 25, 2023. Wider release (Calif.) begins Jan. 12, 2024. Metacritic rating: 84%.

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