“The Teachers’ Lounge” is Germany’s submission for Best International Feature Film to the 2024 Academy Awards, and just a few minutes into it, it’s easy to understand why. The film uses a public school as a microcosm for society, with grade school teacher Carla Novak (Leonie Benesche) at the center. Although she is new-ish to teaching, she is confident and idealistic and seemingly well-liked by her middle grade students as well as her colleagues. That all changes when students in her classroom are suspected of theft by other teachers, and she suspects a colleague of stealing money from her coat pocket.
During the initial scene of her students being unofficially investigated for a theft, Carla is clearly uncomfortable with the accusations, probing and profiling taking place. She questions the ethical and legal nature of the investigation. She sympathizes with the students’ feelings of being violated and a couple of them maybe even unfairly profiled. Despite her unease, she is instructed by the principal and teacher involved to accept their decision to investigate and their methods. Not long afterwards, she realizes she has been the victim of a theft in the teachers’ lounge. In an attempt to catch them in action, Carla purposefully puts money in her jacket pocket, leaves it at her seat, then sets up her computer camera. The thief takes the bait, but only his or hers torso is captured on camera wearing a distinctive and colorful blouse.
With evidence in hand, she approaches who she believes is the culprit, one of the support staff in the school office. The secretary vehemently denies the accusation. Soon after, a series of heated debates and unfortunate events are unleashed, with the secretary’s son, a student at the school who is often the subject of bullying, is swept up in the drama. He lashes out at the teacher in defense of himself and his mother. Others question if the mother and son are not being singled out because of their ethnicity and economic status. This is the very thing that Carla questioned when certain students were targeted in her classroom. Now she herself is accused of what she had earlier suspected. Carla, once appreciated and admired; cool and calm, is getting it from all sides. There is no place in the school- her classroom, the teachers’ lounge, common areas- where she is not either the victim of accusations or brought into decisive matters between others. Not surprisingly, she begins to second guess herself, the choices she made and the allegations she made.
Because the movie is done entirely from Carla’s point of view and she is well-meaning and likable, the audience is sympathetic to her and what becomes her plight of digging a deeper hole as she tries to navigate what’s right and wrong. She is the teacher you would want for your children or would have wanted for yourself. You feel the chaos swirling around and want to defend and protect her. Benesch is magnificent as the protagonist. She morphs into the role, believable and captivating. She makes us believe that Carla is us in our everyday battles no matter how small or large; it’s individuals grappling with when to engage in political or community issues, and when to retreat. Through it all, filmmaker İlker Çatak (“White Ribbon”) impressively navigates themes of power, racism, social justice and student’s rights. There is something both very reflective of German society while also intensely universal.