Berlinale 2023 review: The Teachers’ Lounge (İlker Çatak)

“Directed with chilling efficiency, this fast-paced Berlinale premiere should significantly boost Çatak’s international profile and enjoy an extensive run on the festival circuit.”

In The Teachers’ Lounge (Das Lehrerzimmer), the taut and engrossing new feature by Turkish-German filmmaker İlker Çatak, a series of thefts in a high school puts young teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch in an impressive performance) in an unexpectedly precarious position. She is determined to find a solution to this seemingly minor case without hurting anyone, but the more she tries to set things straight, the more complicated the situation becomes for her. Initially Carla is neither the victim nor the culprit, but after multiple surprising developments, she turns into a target for every stakeholder in the school. Her students are manipulative, prone to provocation, and increasingly rebellious. The parents are quick to jump to false conclusions and eager to question her competence. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the way her colleagues treat her; the titular teachers’ lounge appears to be a calm place for civilized conversations and collaboration at first glance, but is gradually revealed to be a setting for hypocritical behavior, petty lies, and unexpressed hostility. Directed with chilling efficiency, this fast-paced Berlinale premiere should significantly boost Çatak’s international profile and enjoy an extensive run on the festival circuit.

Following an uncomfortable inquiry about a theft in her school, Carla is suspicious about other instances of stealing and decides to deliberately leave her belongings unattended in the teachers’ lounge when she goes to class. As she predicts, her money has been stolen when she returns, but the recording captured by her laptop’s camera offers some inconclusive evidence regarding the thief’s identity. From this point on, Çatak builds a twisted story that works on multiple levels. Instead of following the familiar beats of an investigative thriller (it doesn’t really matter who is guilty or innocent), he is more interested in shifting power dynamics and their societal implications. On one hand, The Teachers’ Lounge exposes the inadequacy of the rules and mechanisms that are put in place to protect teachers and students. On the other hand, it also depicts how individuals tend to interpret or bend the same rules according to their self-interest and political inclinations. For the students who bully their peers, the theft is only an opportunity to unleash their cruel behavior. For the team that publishes the school newspaper, the same events present a lucrative scandal that they can exploit (with misappropriation of concepts like freedom and the right to know providing a disguise for their wrongdoing). For some of the teachers, this is a crisis that brings their hidden racism and performative allyship to the front, a particularly unsettling revelation in a school with an ethnically diverse student body.

The video evidence Carla presents to the principal is sufficient to make a serious accusation, but perhaps not enough to definitively prove it. The accusation is directed at a member of the school staff whose son Oskar is one of the brightest students in Carla’s class. In their rush to follow the guidelines, other teachers fail to show empathy towards Oskar, but Carla tries hard to remain professional about the whole affair and makes an effort to win him back. However, since The Teachers’ Lounge is far more sinister and sophisticated than a typical feel-good drama set in a classroom, her good intentions lead to troubling consequences for all involved. This is where The Teachers’ Lounge seems less surefooted; even though Carla’s professionalism is commendable, it can be difficult to understand her motivations or her patience towards people who mistreat (and even assault) her. Likewise, it may not be easy to see why Oskar’s mother behaves in an aggressive and uncooperative manner when she faces grave accusations instead of trying to clear her name. Çatak succeeds in creating a morally ambiguous and politically charged microcosm, but cannot quite explain the strange entitlement of the accused or the defensive behavior of his protagonist. Yet it must be said that in a thorny story such as this one, there is never one obvious course of action and whether the characters’ choices make complete sense or not is a highly subjective matter.

Çatak keeps almost the entire film confined to the school grounds. We learn very little about Carla’s life beyond her work and we never see the characters outside the institutional roles given to them. This choice is instrumental in building tension, keeping the film sharp and focused even when the story gets increasingly convoluted. Aided greatly by Marvin Miller’s suitably nerve-racking musical score, The Teachers’ Lounge evolves into an edge-of-the-seat experience in the second half. Çatak also manages to find creative ways to visualize Carla’s growing confusion and frustration without ever leaving the school halls (a nightmarish sequence where everyone except Carla is wearing the same blouse and a rare moment of solitude in the ladies’ room are especially notable in this regard). This is a tight, superbly controlled film that operates on both a psychological and a social level, with dark implications about key institutional settings (schools and beyond) and the people who populate them.