The Teachers’ Lounge review – a masterclass in playground politics

<span>Leonie Benesch as Carla, with Leo Stettnisch as Oskar, in the ‘terrific’ The Teachers’ Lounge.</span><span>Photograph: Sony Pictures Classics</span>
Leonie Benesch as Carla, with Leo Stettnisch as Oskar, in the ‘terrific’ The Teachers’ Lounge.Photograph: Sony Pictures Classics

The first thing you notice is the score: an apprehensive, pulsing single note, plucked on violins and tightly strung nerves, it’s a choking panic attack in musical form. And it’s a masterclass in using a stripped-back, minimal approach to gripping effect, evident throughout Ilker Çatak’s terrific, taut, Oscar-nominated drama.

The setting is a German secondary school, a location the restless, bustling camera leaves only once. Çatak adds to the oppressive feeling by shooting in a tight, boxed-in aspect ratio: the building may be airy and open plan, but the walls are closing in.

Like Laurent Cantet’s The Class, the school serves as a microcosm, with wider world issues of racial profiling and socioeconomic divisions playing out in miniature. But it works both ways, with a mirror image of playground politics reflected in the mean-girl manoeuvring in the staff room. There’s another parallel with The Class: both films focus on idealistic but fallible teachers who, through an impulsive misstep, upset the delicate balance of their workplace.

Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) is new to the school, her commitment and optimism still unblunted. When the suspicion for a spate of thefts falls on a particular boy, based on little more than his skin colour, she acts to exonerate him, capturing, through dubious means, evidence that seems to implicate a fellow member of staff. But the accused teacher, single mother of Oskar (Leo Stettnisch), another child in Carla’s class, doggedly protests her innocence. Benesch is superb, her face a glazed mask of panic as the shockwaves resulting from her actions shake the very foundations of the school.