The Teachers’ Lounge: the hunt for a bad apple leads to chaos in this jittery classroom thriller

Leonie Benesch is terrific as an idealistic teacher pushed to the edge by an incident at her school, but the stakes are never quite clear in Ilker Çatak’s anxiety-inducing workplace thriller.

9 April 2024

By Catherine Wheatley

Leonie Benesch as Carla Nowak in The Teachers’ Lounge (2023)
Sight and Sound

Ilker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge falls into a category of films best described as ­‘everyday thrillers’. Recently we’ve had Boiling Point (2021) and Full Time (2022), but the tradition stretches back at least as far as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). These are films in which characters fight not for their lives but for their livelihoods: ­desperately working to keep their jobs, their families and their ­integrity intact.

Leonie Benesch is terrific here as Carla Nowak, an idealistic young teacher frightened of her own courage and overwhelmed by the snowballing events that a moment of exasperation has set in motion. Frustrated by her colleagues’ ham-fisted handling of a spate of petty thefts, Carla takes matters into her own hands by setting a trap and secretly filming the culprit in the act. But the thief turns out to be a much-loved member of the school community, and Carla’s video is a possible act of entrapment, violating human rights policy. The headteacher involves the police, and the unfortunate situation metastasises horribly. Soon Carla is contending with a backlash from students, staff and parents, and every time she opens her mouth she seems to make things worse. 

Russet-haired and pale-lashed, with dark, darting eyes, Benesch bears a resemblance to the young Isabelle Huppert, and shares her ability to walk a line between imperiousness and anxiety. There are shades here, too, of Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tár: a rather on-the-nose early scene with an orchestral warm-up as soundtrack sees Carla quietening her chattering class with a regal sweep of her arms. A maths teacher, Carla likes to make the unpredictable predictable, insisting time and again on the mathematical principles of algorithm, evidence, proof. She should be in her element amid the geometrical architecture and arrangements of the school: the cuboid filing cabinets, parallel rows of desks and the lacquered floor of the sports hall, on which a perfect painted circle intersects with the lines of a grid. But her rigid shoulders and brusque, overly professional demeanour suggest she is ill at ease even before the environment becomes openly hostile. 

Leonie Benesch as Carla Nowak in The Teachers’ Lounge (2023)
© if Productions/Judith Kaufmann

Certainly, something seems rotten about the institution from the outset. One teacher reports large quantities of pencils are missing from the stock room. Another covertly pockets change from the staffroom honesty box. A pair of children slip out of class for what might be a sneaky cigarette – or perhaps something more sinister. The school’s zero-tolerance policy is enforced by a good cop/bad cop duo of male teachers who look like something out of a 70s detective film, complete with aviator spectacles and grubby-looking stubble. It hardly seems a coincidence that their suspicions first alight on a child of immigrant parents (“You know the father’s a taxi driver?”, one sagely nods, as if that were incontrovertible proof of criminality). Carla herself was born in Poland and is understandably keen to avoid the topic of her heritage. 

The atmosphere is jittery, paranoid, an effect heightened by Çatak’s choice to set the entire film – with one brief exception – within the school grounds. The film is very good at evoking the glittering malevolence of children: it calls to mind Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) and Laura Wandel’s Playground (2022), films that, like Çatak’s, cast the classroom as a place in which adults are outnumbered and ultimately ineffective. Perhaps the closest comparison, though, is with Maren Ade’s underseen debut The Forest for the Trees (2003), which shares a key cast member, Eva Löbau, with The Teachers’ Lounge, and paints a similarly brutal portrait of a female teacher trying and failing to assert authority at work. 

Where those films succeed, though, and Çatak’s does not, is in their setting out of the stakes. For Carla’s fate to matter to us, something must be in the balance, and here it’s not clear quite what that is. Since the school is understaffed as it stands, we know she’s not likely to lose her job; there’s no real threat of violence; her personal life is a closed book. 

There’s the suggestion that the corruption is systemic – the conspiracy goes right to the top – but the film is so busy skewering everything that it becomes unfocused, baggy. A misjudged surreal sequence undercuts an otherwise rigorous realist aesthetic, and the closing shot is a non sequitur. It’s just possible these elements are deliberately intended to undermine Carla’s own commitment to making order out of chaos, suggesting that humanity lies in the loose ends that can’t be neatly tied up. Unfortunately, it’s the audience who are left with a sense of unfinished business. 

 ► The Teachers’ Lounge is in UK cinemas from 12 April.