Movie Review: The Teacher

When a teacher abuses her position in the communist era, parents are put in a tough spot

The Teacher
Directed by Jan Hřebejk
With Zuzana Mauréry, Peter Bebjak, Csongor Kassai, Martin Havelka, Zuzana Konečná

The 1980s were not the best time in Czechoslovakia. Director Jan Hřebejk has looked to the communist era before. In his latest film, The Teacher (Učiteľka) he takes us to a school in Slovakia during the dark days of normalization.

The teacher in question has connections to the communist party and to influential people in Moscow. One her first day as a teacher, Marie Drazděchová (played by Zuzana Mauréry) asks her students to say their names and then, oddly, what their parents do for a living.

She then starts to ask the parents for favors, some of which are illegal. If the parents don't comply, the student suffers with poor grades, which also lead to being dropped from extracurricular activities like sports.

Much of the film is structured as a school meeting, with parents and school staff arguing in a Bratislava classroom at night.

Sides are pitched along party lines, with pro-communists trying to intimidate the rest into silence over the issue, and very few people actually willing to put their names on a petition. Various incidents of the teacher abusing her position are seen in flashback.

Hřebejk examined the communist era before, in his film Cozy Dens (Pelíšky) in 1999. He also turned to World War II in Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat) in 2000. The latter film was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Hřebejk and his usual screenwriter Petr Jarchovský are back in fine form after a somewhat disappointing decade. The ensemble cast almost faultlessly re-creates the era and captures the mood of fear that people had about speaking up in public against people with connections.

Over the course of the film, viewers can see a panorama of society as people from disabled pensioners to airport accountants recount how the teacher has forced them or tried to force them into doing favors.

You also see a divide between the parents of poor students happy that their children are now getting good grades pit against the parents of good students upset that the grades, due to lack of favors performed, have fallen.

The film had its premiere in the competition section of the recent Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and actress Zuzana Mauréry won Best Supporting Actress for her role. Director Hřebejk said that the film, while set in a specific time is meant to have a universal appeal, as almost everyone has faced situations where they can benefit from doing something wrong or conversely feel that following their conscience will have severe disadvantages.

Screenwriter Petr Jarchovský said that the script is based on a true story that circulated in his family, but that he expanded its scope from a small meeting among a few parents to a more formal, almost courtroom-like setting. Both Jarchovský and Hřebejk said the themes of opportunism, fear and human dignity attracted them to the project.

For actress Zuzana Mauréry, the role fell somewhere between comedy and drama. She says she tried not to go too far to either extreme, adding that the script created a very convincing character.

The film is Hřebejk's first to be shot in the Slovak language, and the with one exception the first time he has worked with the cast. Csongor Kassai worked with the director on Divided We Fall. He said he wanted to work with actors who were not so well known so they would not be associated too much with previous roles.

Treating the plot as a universal story pays off. You don't have to have lived in the Eastern bloc under communism to be able to get caught up in the story. Similar events play out today in offices and other settings with people having to decide whether to keep their head low so they can keep their job or speak up for what is right.

At the same time, the film is not a heavy-handed morality play. The light touches and occasional comic moments keep it from feeling like a school lecture on the importance of right and wrong.

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