Schools Under pressure: new film shows struggle in understaffed schools

German filmmaker Ilker Çatak exposes the complex pressures faced by teachers every day in his gripping drama, The Teacher’s Lounge.

Much like Australia, Germany is experiencing a critical shortage of teachers. Late last year, the German education union (GEW) challenged the official toll of 14,000 vacant full-time teaching positions, saying that the actual figure is considerably higher and will likely climb to 56,000 by 2035.

Against this backdrop, German filmmaker Ilker Çatak has delivered a riveting school-set thriller, The Teachers’ Lounge. Nominated for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Oscars, it stars a remarkable Leonie Benesch as Carla, an idealistic teacher working in an under-staffed school desperately trying to keep her students’ best interests at heart. After one is accused of stealing, she finds herself dragged into an escalating crisis. Carla intervenes, with disastrous consequences.

“If this film sparks a conversation about [teacher shortages], then we might value their work better and start thinking about how we can make this job more accessible.”

Ilker Çatak

“The lack of teachers here is a huge problem,” Ilker tells me in an interview at the Berlin International Film Festival in which he could be describing the situation for teachers in Australia and many other parts of the world.

“If this film sparks a conversation about it, then we might value their work better and start thinking about how we can make this job more accessible. How can we get young people to pick up the profession? Because teachers are underpaid and overworked, and it should be the other way around.”

Co-written with Johannes Duncker and directed by Ilker, The Teachers’ Lounge ratchets up the spiralling tension faced by Carla after her attempt to calm an already inflamed situation merely throws further fuel on the fire. “She’s taking a little sip of her cold coffee and rushing to that next appointment,” Ilker says. “And then that appointment is an interrogation that’s very uncomfortable, and that sets the tone for everything.”

With no relief, Cara faces recriminations from students, parents, colleagues, and the school newspaper, as she valiantly tries to set things right. “We wanted to create a pressure cooker, a film that doesn’t give the audience a moment to breathe,” the director says. “And so, we thought, ‘OK, we’re not leaving the school’. That’s one rule. And the other rule was, if there’s no conflict in the scene, we probably don’t need it.”

The child of Turkish immigrants, Ilker found himself eyed with suspicion at school. “I was the only brown kid in my class,” he says. “I got racially profiled several times, and if you’ve experienced that kind of shit in your life, you know what the film is trying to tell you.”

In The Teacher’s Lounge, Carla defends her student, disturbed by what seems to be a colleague’s skewed perception. “The stakes may seem small, but they’re actually high,” Ilker says. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve stolen a cent or a million dollars; you’re just a thief – end of story – and that’s something you cannot get rid of.”

The film wrestles with big topics such as sexism, classism, and the disturbingly malleable understanding of truth. Importantly, it had to be as authentic as possible in depicting the everyday experience of teachers. To that end, Ilker and Johannes undertook extensive interviews with teachers at several German schools.

“It was very clear to us that we needed to get the research right,” Ilker explains. “It’s harder, nowadays, because the job has suffered erosion. When I was a kid, my parents used to say, ‘If your teacher is saying so, then it must be right’. Now, it’s quite the opposite. Parents are questioning teachers much more.”

That switch came through clearly in the research. “Teachers said to us that parents do not want to be parents anymore; they want to be friends with their kids.” This makes it tricky for teachers to then expect their students to respect authority. “If they don’t get it at home, they will not respect teachers, and this is a big problem.”

It was an honour to be up for an Oscar, Ilker says. “My grandparents came here as illiterates, and two generations later, their grandkid is bringing this country an Oscar nomination. Knowing the right wing is on the rise, this is a successful story of migration, and it’s something that I feel proud of, that I think Germany can be proud of.”

The Teachers’ Lounge will be released in Australian cinemas on April 25.

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