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Release Date: 02/09/24 [Cinemas]
Genre: Drama.

Studio: Sony Pictures Classics.

"When one of her students is suspected of theft, teacher Carla Nowak decides to get to the bottom of the matter. Caught between her ideals and the school system, the consequences of her actions threaten to break her." 


Recently Oscar-nominated for Best International Film (Germany), The Teachers’ Lounge is a disquieting look at what happens when the sometimes-tense relationship between students and faculty spirals out of control.


The movie swept the German Film Awards in 2023, winning for Best Feature Film, Best Director (Ilker Çatak), Best Screenplay (Çatak and Johannes Duncker), and Best Female Lead (Leonie Benesch).


Benesch plays Carla Nowak, a teacher who will do anything to connect with her students, often at the expense of her relationships with other faculty members. Nowak is a dedicated instructor, but often seems stiff and cold around her peers. There are hints throughout the film that she suffers from anxiety and self-esteem issues. 


Complicating matters for Nowak, the school is riddled with instances of theft. Teachers complain about missing cash and several faculty members try to coerce students into turning in their classmates. When a minority student becomes a suspect, his parents are brought in for questioning and he is ultimately absolved, but the incident only serves to amplify the feeling of distrust. 


Nowak, to try and snuff out the thief, leaves her wallet in a coat pocket in view of her laptop, and she appears to catch a coworker named Friederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau) stealing on camera. Kuhn stiffly balks at the charges and her son, Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), a student at the school, is caught up in the accusations. 


If all of that seems a little small, the fine acting, direction, and cinematography whip that teapot into a veritable tempest. 


Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann’s almost exclusive use of tracking shots keeps things – literally – moving. The camera is constantly in motion, often just over the shoulder of Nowak, putting the audience right in the thick of the action and building and building tension for nearly the entire runtime. 


Music by Marvin Miller expertly compliments all that hectic motion with an incredibly sparse but effective score that’s often just a few plucked and repeated notes, echoing and throbbing.


Perhaps none of that would matter without Benesch’s commanding turn in the lead role. As things escalate, there are times when her body and movements are restrained almost to the point of stillness, instead letting the action out through her eyes and the slightest change in pitch or vibration of her voice. It’s the incredible nuance of a woman who is desperately clinging to her ideals, even when everyone around her has abandoned any trace of hope.


Stettnisch, meanwhile, is a breakout as a young student with heartbreaking dedication to his accused mother. His depth and character growth in the role is rarified stuff for an actor of any age, but he comes off as a natural.


The Teachers’ Lounge is fascinating in the way it looks at seemingly ordinary relationships – teachers and students, coworkers, parents and children – and how they can fracture and break apart so easily. It’s also a masterclass in balancing chaos and restraint on a knifepoint, especially with the expectation of what school violence can and does look like to an American audience. 


As a film, it’s a model of what so many outstanding creative efforts can achieve when whipped together into 98 minutes of frantic, frenetic, near perfection. 

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