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.”