Jacob Mendez
Jacob Mendez

“Teachers’ lounge”: Drama at school. All because of a Pole?

  • The main character of the film “Staff room” – Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) – starts her first job in high school, distinguished by idealism and great commitment. When a series of thefts occur at school, suspicion falls on one of its students. Carla decides to investigate the matter on her own. The teacher tries to mediate between outraged parents, colleagues and students. The more desperately she tries to do everything right, the more the young teacher is at risk of breaking down.

  • One of the roles in the film is played by Rafał Stchowiak, who has been working in Germany for years. The Polish actor is popular abroad, he played in the largest German theaters – in Berlin and Hamburg, and got interesting film roles. In Poland he can be seen in Marcin Koszałka’s film “White Courage”.
  • The title was the German candidate for the Oscar and was one of the five nominated productions in the best international film category this year.

From the rather gloomy memory of my childhood years spent in a public primary school, I remember the almost dictatorial image of a teacher, an educator who exercised absolute power at school and in the classroom. And everything was allowed for him. Also humiliate, destroy, mock. No consequences. There were also wonderful teachers back then, supportive and empathetic, I will always be grateful to them for that, but memory has a way of perpetuating, above all, scandalous attitudes, harmful opinions, which destroy the psyche of a young person, a student. And this is what Çatak talks about in “The Teacher’s Room”.

Today, school is no longer – it cannot be, it would not work – a place for open exploitation of the weaker, or for compensating for one’s own complexes and professional unfulfillment. Kids can stand up for themselves, and if not them, then certainly their parents. Learning social media was not wasted. The student has a voice, but it is the teacher who is afraid of accusations, verbal violence and unfair assessments. The situation is really complicated and significantly exceeds the possibilities of this short text, especially since the most important point of reference is the Oscar-nominated film.

Ilker Çatak makes the right assumption that the school is photogenic. Cinogenic. There is everything there: conflicts, jealousies, conspiracies, melodramas and action movies. The film thus fits into the context of hundreds of films dedicated to and about school. However, the “Teacher’s Room” does not rise significantly above average.

So why such success? Perhaps because Çatak perfectly reflected the ambiguity of times of ethnic and moral interdependence in this supposedly popular cinema. And the film school becomes, as it were, a symbolic Germany, or a symbolic Europe, constantly plagued by new problems, wars, and the absorption of new cultures and religions. This is perhaps the most interesting layer of this not fully completed work.

Almost the entire film takes place on school grounds. The building, classrooms, teachers’ room, yard – it’s the whole of Germany in cross-section. Conflicts of interest, class and religious beliefs, aggression and self-aggression. Today, Germans (and not only them) have a problem with multiculturalism. The eternal oscillation between the sense of solidarity, sympathy, and finally political correctness, diplomacy, and the sense of superiority, misunderstanding or arrogance. This process will never end, and I already know that full assimilation is not possible. At school, especially primary school, this is clearly visible.

The main character here is a Polish mathematics teacher and class teacher, Carla Nowak, introvertedly played by Leonie Benesch. The case is almost criminal. There are more and more common thefts at school, money goes missing, someone takes it out of wallets. However, when specific accusations are made during the interrogations, Carla does not feel good about it. He doesn’t think it’s right, nor is it okay to conduct specific interrogations among the kids. Eventually, suspicion falls on one student and the situation begins to escalate. Everything begins to get out of control for the distinguished and thoughtful Carla. The spiral of accusations and verbal violence begins to spiral itself, and the teacher, full of good will, tolerant and previously widely liked by students and teachers, becomes a generator of bad energy and a growing atmosphere of accusation. He can’t deal with it, no one could.

Ilker Çatak touches on several threads in the film, but does not develop any of them properly. Therefore, we have the problem of children’s responsibility for their parents’ behavior, the teacher’s responsibility for the student’s intellectual and civic development, and finally the system of power in force in the titular teachers’ room. There is a fight for the sphere of influence, for domination over students and the rest of the staff. In passing, another problem appears – the problem of the inability to develop only the right procedures in working with young people, which would work in critical situations, in contact with another person, especially when it is a person who is not yet consolidated, in a trial, a child or a student, and any other top-down methods fail.

In the film, this turns out to be the weakest link – teachers have no common line of defense, they get lost in the facts, they contradict themselves, they want to get the problem over with as quickly as possible, move on to the next task, homework, the next topic. And the theft case – involving students, parents and staff alike – would require a completely different approach. A common line, vision, care. All aspects fail. Carla is left alone with the problem.

The minor (not very well cast) protagonists of the film are in a moment of transition. They are still children, dependent on their parents, on their mother and father, but they are just entering the phase when faith in the parental dogma begins to crumble, something inside the students breaks. They lose trust in their parents, in their teachers, in themselves. And this is a critical moment in the community of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds addicted to social media or smartphones: they will either rebel against the social hierarchy or agree to the current system of roles.

Kids can be rebellious, but – like everyone else – they are looking for a wizard who would show them the right path. He led me to my destination. There are no such mentors in the film “Teachers’ Room”. Will we find them in the real world? I don’t know, I don’t think so.


“Staff room”, dir. Ilker Çatak, Germany 2023, distributor: UIP, cinema premiere: March 15, 2024.