I saw Germany’s Oscar submission, The Teachers’ Lounge, all the way back during the Mill Valley Film Festival in early October. It’s been almost two months since I viewed the follow-up effort from the defending title-holders in the International Feature competition, and it still sticks with me now that it’s in public release here in America. There’s a lot to love about this film, particularly how it gets a similar point as the remake of All Quiet on the Western Front across, only through more intimate and character-focused means. There are also great performances and several layers to the overall story that are downright fascinating if you want to take a deep dive into the themes.
All that said, the film also has a serious fatal flaw, one that definitely lowers the final grade and I think dooms its chances with the Academy this time around. It not only sullies all that surrounds it, but it also arguably flies directly into the face of what the movie is trying to say. I’ll do my best to avoid full spoilers, but it’s an element that has to be discussed at least in a vacuum in order to understand where this otherwise grand idea ultimately comes up somewhat short.
Leonie Benesch stars as Carlo Nowak, a relatively new teacher at what appears to be the German equivalent of a middle school. She specializes in math, but basically handles an entire class of approximate sixth graders by herself. She’s a caring educator as well as a pragmatic disciplinarian. She won’t take any guff from the students if they’ve done something wrong, but she believes in the basic good in all of them, and genuinely wants them all to succeed.
That’s not how the film starts, however. Instead, the story begins with her taking a back seat role, as another of the teachers, Thomas (Michael Klammer) basically interrogates and tries to intimidate the two student council representatives from Carla’s class. As is eventually established, there has been a string of robberies at the school, where several teachers have had money taken from their wallets and purses. Thomas, appointing himself as lead inquisitor, all but demands that the two kids give up one of their classmates — not so coincidentally the only one from a migrant family — as the thief. They eventually acquiesce despite no evidence pointing to him (he has a fancier wallet than most kids, and the money inside is later confirmed by his parents to be a gift to buy himself a new video game as a reward for his good grades), and Carla is noticeably disturbed by Thomas’ strong-arm tactics. Things aren’t helped when he essentially has the classroom raided to out the young boy, again, despite there being zero evidence of any wrongdoing on his part.
Thomas is a complicated character. He asserts the fact that he’s biracial as evidence that he can’t be prejudiced, and he says that most of his attitude comes from years of being jaded by punk kids getting away with stuff. Still, he and another teacher, Vanessa (Sarah Bauerett), basically control the faculty in all non-official capacities through their aggressive personalities. When Carla voices her objections to their baseless presumptions, they sort of play good cop/bad cop with her, as Thomas all but browbeats and gaslights her by saying that she’s too new to understand how things are supposed to work, while Vanessa reassures her that she’ll get used to it.
Still, Carla remains undeterred when it comes to finding out the truth and doing right by her juvenile charges. She believes there is some sort of sweet spot where if she plays it just right, everyone will be able to work and learn in harmony. Each day she leads her class in peppy cheers and breathing exercises in order to loosen them up for the coming lessons, and she’s quick to defend anyone she feels is being treated unfairly. This is made manifest in the form of her brightest student, Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), who demonstrates advanced capabilities in math and science, but who also gets bullied by some of the other boys. To help his morale, she gives him a Rubik’s Cube, the physical representation of her own philosophy, challenging him to keep it until he solves it, as it’s not a matter of chance and guesswork, but algorithmic logic that will get him through it.
Seeing his enthusiasm as something of a sign, Carla opts for what she feels is the most straightforward method of stopping the school thief, catching them in the act. In the teachers’ lounge one day, she intentionally leaves her jacket on the back of her desk chair with her wallet inside the pocket. She then walks away from her desk, leaving her laptop open with the webcam on to record anyone who might come picking. Sure enough, someone does take the bait, and noticing the culprit’s blouse sleeve, Carla comes to the horrifying conclusion that it wasn’t one of the students who took the money, but the faculty secretary, Friederike (Eva Löbau), who also happens to be Oskar’s mother. When Carla confronts Friederike with this evidence, she is insulted at the accusation and responds quite harshly. After the principal is brought in, things get even more heated, with Friederike opening her own wallet to reveal that there’s no money in it. She is suspended pending an investigation, and she angrily takes Oskar out of school in a huff.
Sadly, this is only the start of Carla’s problems. Once news gets out about what happened, she’s basically attacked from all sides. Friederike goes to the press with the scandal, and even comes to Parent-Teacher Night to denounce Carla in front of all the other parents of her class. When Oskar returns to school, he’s bullied even more mercilessly, and while Carla does her best to protect him and separate the issue with his mother from his own education, he becomes more and more combative, sowing an insurrection among the student body and destroying her laptop, which was the only source of evidence against his mother. One of the kids asks to interview her for the school paper, and everything she says is taken out of context and the affair is turned into the tabloid event of the year. Even the rest of the faculty turns against her (if they were even on her side in the first place), with Thomas and Vanessa leading the charge by saying it was a violation of their rights for her to record the room without their consent. Before long, the fact that Carla is the only actual victim of a crime here is completely lost in the fog of this war of words and personae.
Almost all of this is staggeringly brilliant. Benesch gives a tremendous performance as she’s beset by detractors no matter what she does, and young Stettnisch’s turn is both amazing and heartbreaking. He carries the bulk of the emotional load here, and he does so quite admirably, showing off the intellect that Oskar possesses in ways that once inspired Carla, but now damns her. The moment that he’s made aware, through that gift of the cube, that there’s always a way to beat the game rather than simply play it, he finds a way to manipulate almost every encounter with Carla, gleefully playing to a frustrating stalemate every time in hopes of getting her to crack, which of course she won’t. The way they play off each other is astounding.
And as I said earlier, the much subtler, craftier ways that this film gets across the idea that conflict is pointless is arguably better than the All Quiet remake that won the Academy Award, because this one doesn’t require massive production values. All you need is clever writing, a strong cast, and characters that easily juxtapose their own power dynamics, with the adults acting childish and the children conducting themselves with the vitriol of aggrieved authority figures.
This would be damn near perfect if not for one single, solitary flaw — the ending. Again, I won’t reveal what it is, because that’s just bad form, and despite this large issue the overall film is still very much worth seeing, but when the denouement came about, my jaw dropped at how bad it was. As you get to know these characters, as you get to judge the shades of grey within the individual battles, a set of possible solutions presents itself that would be at least narratively satisfying, if not personally so. Hell, the whole point of the Rubik’s Cube is that it serves as a microcosm for this idea. There are factors at play that, once established and quantified, create outcomes that can be predicted and orchestrated. I’m guessing that for the average viewer, their major questions will be who solves the puzzle first, and how that solution will present itself. The film utterly fails to stick that landing, and what we get instead is a completely shortsighted conclusion that betrays the underlying concept and the characters. If you do end up seeing this, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
As such, it’s impossible for me to not dock this by at least a letter grade, and I’m quite upset about it. This film, a far better representation of Germany’s cinematic accomplishments than last year’s winner, is absolute gold for the first 90 of its 98 minutes. Everything after that all but completely squanders the goodwill it built leading up to it. To put it in the context of the movie’s setting, imagine you’ve gotten straight-As all semester long, and then when it comes to the final exam, you just show up and wipe your ass with the test paper. You’ll still pass most likely (unless the final counts for more than half your grade), but it’ll feel at best incomplete, and at worst a waste of everyone’s time.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What other movies started out strong but were ruined by the ending? Have you ever engaged in a battle of wills with one of your teachers? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!