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'The Teachers' Lounge' is a surprising look at a set of troubled faculty and students

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An idealistic middle school teacher confronts a troubled faculty and alienated students in the film "The Teachers' Lounge." If that description has you picturing a tale of uplift and inspiration like, say, "Stand And Deliver," our critic Bob Mondello says Germany's Oscar nominee for best international feature will surprise you.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Carla has the bright eyes and easy smile of a natural-born teacher. Her instinct is always to defend her students at a meeting, say, where other faculty members are trying to get two children to snitch on their classmates about a raft of petty theft.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE")

LEONIE BENESCH: (As Carla Nowak, speaking German).

MONDELLO: "You don't have to answer if you don't want to," she says. She's uncomfortable with unsupported assertions. In class, too, when her students are looking at math questions, the important thing she tells them is that they don't just guess. A proof needs a derivation that builds up step by step.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE")

BENESCH: (As Carla Nowak, speaking German).

MONDELLO: If only life were like that. Class is interrupted by teachers who ask all the boys to put their wallets on their desks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE")

ANNE-KATHRIN GUMMICH: (As Dr. Bettina Bohm, speaking German).

MONDELLO: "It's voluntary," says one. And then that old saying, "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE")

GUMMICH: (As Bettina Bohm, speaking German).

MONDELLO: One boy who had nothing to hide, the son of Turkish immigrants - wouldn't you know? - gets accused anyway. And his parents quickly demolish the quasi-racist alleged proof, which was definitely not derived step by step. That said, the thefts are still real. So Carla sets up a sting.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLS RUSTLING)

MONDELLO: She counts the cash in her wallet and then leaves it unattended in a coat pocket next to her laptop with its camera turned on. Returning after a bit, she looks at the video, sees what seems pretty foolproof evidence and reports it, at which point things turn messy. The person accused denies everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE")

EVA LOBAU: (As Friederike Kuhn, speaking German).

MONDELLO: And that recording...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE")

RAFAEL STACHOWIAK: (As Milosz Dudek, speaking German).

MONDELLO: "...Violates personal rights, not just the accused's, but the whole faculty's."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE")

STACHOWIAK: (As Milosz Dudek, speaking German).

MONDELLO: Filmmaker Ilker Catak is just getting started. A school administration in a defensive crouch, a student newspaper expose that's pure gotcha journalism. These kids may not be attentive in class, but they're for sure listening to their elders, and that's the point. The teachers' lounge is almost hermetically sealed. The camera stays inside the school building for all but a few seconds. But the issues are broader - societal issues, prejudice, surveillance, heavy-handed policing, a populace that's forever being reminded of its rights by a dictatorial authority that has the power to ignore those rights. Throw in the inherent unpredictability of 12-year-olds...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE")

BENESCH: (As Carla, speaking German).

MONDELLO: ...And the nerve-jangling score, and you have the recipe for a provocative, intellectual thriller and for chaos, whether inside or outside the teachers' lounge. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking German).

(SOUNDBITE OF MAGGIE BJORKLUND'S "MISSING AT SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.