The Teachers’ Lounge review – a deeply unsettling day at the chalkface unravels

Ìlker Çatak’s new film is a nerve-janglingly painful and intense movie about an outbreak of stealing in a German secondary school. The uncompromising qualities initially coexist with something subtly insidious and unresolved, an unnerving demonstration of poisoned-herd mentality, all underscored by a disquieting musical score. This then gives away to a sort of melodrama which is less powerful and more generic. The dramatic tendons of the film slacken a little in its third act and I wondered if screenwriters Çatak and Johannes Duncker were sure how exactly to finish their story. Yet it hooks into the mind.

Leonie Benesch (who played Prince Philip’s ill-fated sister Cecile in The Crown) is Carla Nowak, a young, idealistic teacher of maths and PE at a school in which pupils are encouraged to think of themselves with something akin to citizens’ rights. Carla is smart and committed: a fluent speaker of English and also Polish; she comes from a Polish family in Westphalia, and is a little uneasy about her own otherness.

Like everyone in the school, Carla is deeply unhappy about the unsolved thefts, but also unhappy about the heavy-handed and unjustified methods the school is using. After what appears to have been a racist tipoff, a boy with Turkish parents has his wallet searched, but the excess cash there was found to be simply a gift from his parents to buy a computer game; they are deeply unimpressed by the school’s graceless apology and Carla feels it is up to her, as part of a younger and more progressive generation, to make diplomatic overtures to the boy’s mum and dad.

But then Carla sees money going missing from her own purse and by covertly using her laptop to film the teachers’ lounge, makes the sensational discovery that the thief is a member of staff with a boy at the school. This woman’s subsequent suspension (although there is never a clear confession) results in her angry, resentful child starting a whispering campaign against Carla; her colleagues, far from showing solidarity, are somehow persuaded that there is something undisciplined and unprofessional about her behaviour.

Everything unravels from here, and it is an arresting, jagged process. Benesch is very good at showing someone who is basically in shock for most of the school day, and there is a very intense scene in which Carla, suppressing an anxiety attack, makes it into the ladies’ room, empties out the swingbin and uses the plastic garbage sack to breathe into. But after a while, in pure storytelling terms, the film spins its wheels a bit and doesn’t make as much dramatic headway as it might. A slightly sentimental touch concerning a Rubik’s cube given to the pupil appears to be cancelled by a strange and not entirely successful image confected over the closing credit roll. Yet this is a strong performance from Benesch who has a fencer’s force and grace.

• The Teachers’ Lounge screened at the Berlin film festival.