It’s fitting that The Teacher, a movie about a pervasive, ubiquitous system, should itself be so harmonious.
The opening shot of parents trudging into a mysterious meeting at their school, synched up with the students arriving earlier in the day, tells much of the story. The cold, uncomfortable parents moving through a stark building, with the reverse of propaganda paintings in the background, give the viewer more insight.
The film is about a system, a cruel one that is better at protecting itself and putting on appearances than helping anyone. The titular character, Mária Drazdechová, is the embodiment of that system.
The film is set in Slovakia in 1983, which was then part of Czechoslovakia. There has been a complaint about the school’s teacher and the viewers join a meeting of the parents. They recount the many ways Maria, who is also the head of the local communist party, exploited the parents’ desire to help their kids. The parents run errands or secure contraband for the teacher, while the kids do chores for her – otherwise, their grades suffer and their future ebbs away. In a lesser film, the heartbreaking first story would be the focus, allowing for a triumphant third act as the parents unite in defence. But this is not a lesser film.
The film, instead, understands the power of fear, of exposure, and understands how corrupt systems protect themselves. Some of the parents, those for whom this system works, like a wealthy and powerful judge, protect the system. They start out doubting the story, insisting the system is fair, only to resort to outright threats. The ones who have something to lose, whom the system can turn on, stay silent. Only those already on the bottom are willing to say anything, and they struggle to convince anyone else – after all, they’re on the bottom and have no leverage.
As The Teacher progresses and the other parents share their stories (or refuse to), they turn on each other. The film is not naïve enough to think that the teacher is just a bad apple. She can only exist because the system does – because she is the embodiment of it.
And what an embodiment! Zuzana Mauréry, who plays the teacher, carries much of the film’s weight on her shoulders, and she is more than up to the task.
She plays a character who is always wearing a mask. With students, she’s the stern but fair teacher. With parents, she’s just concerned and worried, and when she’s the recipient of favours, she nails the “Oh, you shouldn’t have done this, I couldn’t possibly…oh, if you insist.” It’s such a perfect illustration of something that looks like a favour, something given freely, when it’s absolutely an obligation that is done to avoid consequences. It’s something that, now, is worth talking about. Favours aren’t favours, they’re not even obligations, they’re just self-preservation.
Even when her mask seems to slip, later in the film, we’re never sure if it’s the real her or if there even is a real one. We do not trust her. She makes us paranoid and leaves us looking for ulterior motives in everything she says and does. Even when the camera is only on her, and we know no one else can see her, we end up wondering if that’s a real reaction.
The film plays out like an inverted, more cynical version of 12 Angry Men. In that film, the open debate in a closed space and sound logic of the main character provokes the characters to, slowly, find the right path and answer. In The Teacher, the openness is a tool of fear.
You want to criticise? You’ve done it publicly, everyone knows you did it. The illusion of openness is merely another tool of oppression. By taking a few cues from Lumet’s classic, the film explores the limitations of public discourse, of the occasional futility of logic and discussion, and what viciousness good manners can hide.
Every aspect of the film plays with this idea of appearances, of details, of how manners can be inverted and used against the weak. The backgrounds of every character’s home remind us of their place in the social hierarchy. The constant upgrade of the teacher’s apartment shows how much she’s exploiting others’ willingness to do favours. Her introduction of a new student, recounting how his mother fled the country, is not meant to garner sympathy, but to remind the child how vulnerable he is. People’s honest reactions are when the camera is on someone else, as if they’re even paranoid about the audience knowing their true feelings.
It serves both as a metaphor for the larger system of control the country was under at the time and a very literal illustration of it. Parents and the children are all trapped in the same system. The outbursts that condemn a child mirror perfectly an illegality that condemned their father. A parent failing to do what the teacher desires (being unable to do so) perfectly balances their child failing a rigged test. The child’s dreams, just like those of their parents, are at the whims of someone capricious and self-serving. The teacher owns them, their children and can even own their future.
There are plenty of films about oppressive regimes. But very few try to depict the banality and pettiness of them or their pervasiveness, where the behaviour of a teacher can serve as the battleground of a community’s soul. We tend to like our oppressive overlords a little more spectacular. We like them to have loftier goals. It’s uninspiring to imagine them just being a teacher who trades her students’ futures for a few chores around the house.
Having said all that, the film is not cynical. It’s shot through with warmth and humanity, of people retaining their selves in the face of this system. The film knows that no system is invincible, that nothing lasts forever, and that the future can be won and is worth fighting for. It’s just a hard, hard struggle to do it.
The Teacher is showing at Palace Electric.