Monday, February 12, 2024

German Imports: The Teachers’ Lounge and Afire

Leonie Benesch and Leonard Stettnisch in The Teachers'  Lounge.

In the unnerving German drama The Teachers’ Lounge, a theft in the faculty lounge of a secondary school and a young teacher’s protest against the suspicion that one of her students was responsible lead to chaos. The set-up is complicated. When someone steals money from the wallet of a teacher, Thomas Liebenwerda (Michael Klammer), the principal, Dr. Böhm (Anne-Kathrin Gummich), and the vice-principal, Milosz Dudek (Rafael Stachowiak), cross-examine the two sixth-grade student representatives to the class council in front of the other teachers, asking them to identify classmates who may have been acting strangely or walking around with an unusual amount of cash. This approach makes the students’ math teacher, Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch), markedly uncomfortable. Then the administrators interrupt her class and demand that the boys produce their wallets. The only one carrying a lot of money turns out to be a Middle Eastern student, Ali (Can Rodenbostel), and though they accept his explanation, his interrogation brings his angry parents to the school. (No one uses the phrase “racial profiling”; no one has to.) Upset by the administration’s assumption that the thief must have been one of the kids, Carla decides to conduct her own clandestine investigation. She leaves her jacket on a chair in the lounge with her wallet inside, and sets her laptop to film what happens after she slips out of the room. Indeed, someone lifts money from the wallet, and though the video doesn’t reveal a face, she recognizes the thief’s blouse. But when she confronts its owner, the school secretary, Friederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau), hoping she’ll simply own up to the act and return the money, instead Friederike denies it vehemently, so Carla brings in Dr. Böhm and produces the video. The secretary’s response is tears and outrage, and Carla, struggling to be fair-minded, loses confidence in her allegation. By then, however, it’s too late. Böhm has no choice but to proceed with the accusation, and Dudek points out that Carla had no legal right to film the people in the lounge without their permission. When Friederike makes a scene at a regularly scheduled meeting between Carla and the parents of her math students, insisting on censuring her accuser publicly and threatening to take her to court, inevitably the kids hear about it and rumors fly. Friedriche’s son Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), who is Carla’s most talented pupil, is not only confused and unsettled by the assumption that his mother is guilty but finds himself targeted by classmates who assume that he must be a thief too: “like mother, like son.”

Technically The Teachers’ Lounge is a social problem movie, but even the good examples of that genre we sometimes see, especially in the U.S., tend to be unambiguous. This one isn’t; it’s unresolved because the director, Ilker Catak, and his co-writer, Johannes Duncker, realize that it’s unresolvable. It’s a snowball with a mine inside rolling unimpeded down a jagged hill, letting off explosions as it goes. Everyone we meet fumbles and stumbles, even the best-intentioned characters, Carla and the guidance counselor (Kathrin Wehlisch), and both Carla’s classroom and the teachers’ lounge escalate into battlegrounds. In one session her students refuse to listen to do anything she asks of them until she agrees to answer (some of) their questions. She seems to regain control of the group, leading them into the gym and introducing a trust exercise; she intuiting that Oskar, the little math genius, will be the only one who can devise a way to keep six students cramped together on a box from falling off, and for a moment it looks as if his solution has restored unity to the class. But then he turns it around, taking his revenge against another boy who has spoken against him and shoving him to the ground, and Carla has to pull them apart. Meanwhile her colleagues are angry with her for refusing to discuss the situation with them because of its impact on the children. After Oskar breaks into her office and steals her laptop with the alleged evidence against his mother on it and hurts Carla in the process she continues to try to protect him. Liebenwerda can’t understand he behavior, or why she’s only communicating with the students, agreeing to be interviewed for the school newspaper. The article the newspaper staff publishes excoriates her in print, drawing on the words of the accused secretary and claiming that all they’re seeking is the truth. There is no “truth” in this story, of course – Catak and Duncker don’t confirm Carla’s evidence because in the final analysis it doesn’t make any difference; there are only consequences. The harm to the community by the end seems irreversible, and the harm to the kids, especially Oskar, incalculable.

The movie stays in Carla’s point of view, and Benesch gives an emotionally transparent performance in the role of an idealistic young woman whose fragility becomes clearest in the only (startling) non-realist sequence. The entire ensemble is strong. But aside from Benesch the most impressive acting comes from the young performers, in particular Leonard Stettnisch as Oskar and Vincent Stachowiak as the boy he shoves off the box, a struggling math student named Tom who begins the film by getting caught cheating on a test and later arouses the ire of his classmates by putting his anxiety over his grades ahead of their collective efforts to sabotage the lesson. I was a high school teacher for five years when I was about Carla Nowak’s age and I’ve been a university professor for most of my life, so The Teachers’ Lounge certainly spoke to me. (My experience may also have made me a little bewildered at some of the ancillary details, like the fact that Carla is a math instructor who apparently sees only one group of students and the way the investigation into Liebenwerda’s lost money focuses exclusively on the sixth-graders.) But most viewers, I would think, will find this a tough picture to put aside when it’s finished. You feel you’ve been watching the very fabric of society rip apart.

Langston Uibel and Thomas Schubert in Afire.

I just caught up with Afire, the latest release by the German writer-director Christian Petzold, which I’d missed in theatres last year. In it, two friends in their twenties, Leon (Thomas Schubert), an aspiring novelist, and Felix (Langston Uibel), take a vacation on the Baltic Sea, where Felix’s family has a house. They have to share it with a young woman named Nadja (Paula Beer), who’s working at a nearby hotel and who seems at first, before the boys actually meet her, to be an inconvenience:  she entertains Devid (Enno Trebs), a local lifeguard, in her room at night and their lovemaking keeps Leon awake. But when he meets her the next morning he’s smitten. Like The Teachers’ Lounge this movie is entirely in the emotional point of view of the protagonist. Leon is a thorny, complicated character – moody, hypersensitive, and so self-absorbed that he misses just about everything. He doesn’t pick up on the romantic vibes between Felix and Devid (Enno Trebs), who joins them for supper; he’s still thinking of Devid as the guy who slept with Nadja. And he blinks at clues that might sharpen his responses to both her and his agent, Helmut (Matthias Brandt), who drives out to meet with him and discuss the manuscript he’s just submitted. This coming-of-age story about a young man who can’t get out of his own way is anchored by Schubert’s finely tuned performance. Working with Petzold, a superb director of actors whose instinct for exploring the psychology of his characters is the rich vein that runs through his best pictures – he made Barbara, Undine and most memorably Phoenix, a haunting, imaginative take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo – Schubert manages to make Leon’s short-sightedness and irascibility and blindness to social cues compelling and keep us sympathetic to him. The title of the film is a metaphor but not just that. When Leon and Felix arrive, they learn there are forest fires in the area – far enough away at first so that they don’t worry the characters, but they come perilously close in the second hour. You walk out of the movie with both kinds of fire in your head.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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