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‘The Teachers’ Lounge’ review: This sensational thriller’s biggest risk might be its premise


Murder, mayhem, high-stake heists, and sexual intrigue: These are the electrifying elements that often come into play in a top-notch thriller. The Teachers’ Lounge boasts none of the above, and yet it just might be the most nerve-shredding thriller of the year. 

The film’s premise is boldly low stakes: cracking the case of who is pulling off a series of petty thefts — cash and pencils — at a German junior high. Such banal crime shouldn’t be interesting, much less enthralling. However, co-writer/director Ilker Çatak masterfully unfurls a sadistically tense narrative that touches on ethics, racism, loyalty, and the grim side of sticking to your principles. The result is a lean, slow-burn thriller that is ruthlessly riveting. 

What’s the buzz around The Teachers’ Lounge

Ahead of a U.S. release even being announced, this German drama boasted a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating out of its debut at the Berlin International Film Festival. Already, the film has been selected as Germany’s submission for the Best International Feature Film for the upcoming 96th Academy Awards. So, going into its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Teachers’ Lounge is riding a wave of good word of mouth and solid prestige. Don’t let that fool you into thinking this is some pretentious arthouse thriller. Çatak has crafted a film that works its anxiety-inducing magic because it feels so damn real. 

What’s The Teachers’ Lounge about? 

Leonie Benesch stars as Carla (aka Ms. Nowak), a teacher fresh out of university who’s dedicated to doing her very best for her students. In class, this means showing patience and putting down bullying. But outside of class, she’s forced over and over to defend her students as petty thefts turn other teachers into amateur detectives, keen to interrogate, racially profile, frisk, and intimidate the kids. When Carla sets up a hidden camera snare, she hopes to bring a quick and quiet end to all this drama — including its related abuses of power. Instead, she is pulled into a quagmire of accusations, suspicion, and betrayal that reaches across the faculty, student body, and beyond. 

The Teacher’s Lounge churns tension, thanks to Leonie Benesch and a nerve-plucking score.

Çatak and co-writer Johannes Duncker offer a deceptively simple narrative. There’s no shattering plot twist here. Instead, it’s a cascade of minor calamity. An outburst sparks debate. A rumor sparks a panic. A selfish concern spawns sprawling paranoia. As the institution around her quakes with emotion and grown-ups wage war with children for control of the narrative — which is a losing battle from the start — Carla fights for truth, justice, and the student who has been unfairly dragged into the middle. 

Benesch shoulders the film remarkably. Carla is a heroine who is high-minded but introverted. Very aware that all eyes are on her, she is precise in her chosen words. But Benesch’s eyes, full of fury and pain, express the rage she holds within. Her physicality, shifting from soft around her homeroom to sharp when in conflict, speaks to the pressure put upon her every move. Her voice switches from composed to clipped when she’s caught off-guard by students, who play bait-and-switch with a school paper interview turned uneven exposé. Benesch imbues her physical performance with the seizures of anxiety and concern that torture her heroine.

Where Carla swallows her anxiety and frustration to maintain composure before her class, the score by Marvin Miller sings of building tension. Violins pluck and screech, giving depth to the drama in these dingy school hallways. The shrill cries of strings are unnerving, refusing the viewer a space to coolly reflect on the fast-unfurling fiasco. Like Carla, we might feel overwhelmed — especially as Çatak breaks from authenticity for a touch of the surreal. 

In a film painted in muted colors with a production design that is purposefully mundane, a bright white blouse with childishly large yellow stars stands out. A clue, a condemnation, then — as Carla begins to doubt herself — this blouse transforms into the center of a vision that collides reality with fear, truth with confusion. It’s a small flourish in a film that is rigorously real, but a crucial one that reflects how Carla is being torn apart by the pressure of not only being a defender of her students, but also living up to her high standards for herself. 

While the stakes seem low, The Teachers’ Lounge expertly reveals how severe the consequences can be for a minor transgression (or a minor’s transgression). The film urges audiences to question the wider political meaning of this teacher’s struggle — to not only understand her plight, but also that of the students who most voraciously oppose her. Unfurling anger and empathy in a third act that hits like a blow to the head, The Teachers’ Lounge is uniquely thrilling, sophisticatedly entrancing, and ultimately haunting. 

A tale of good intentions and wounded feelings, with every grounded but growling scene The Teachers’ Lounge drives home the horror that on any given day, this spiraling nightmare could be your own.

The Teacher’s Lounge is now in theaters.

UPDATE: Dec. 21, 2023, 2:07 p.m. EST The Teacher’s Lounge was reviewed out of its North American Premiere at 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The article has been republished for the film’s theatrical debut in the US.





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