Movie Review: 'The Teacher'
Note: this review originally appeared on Expats.cz
A teacher misuses her students in order to obtain favors from their parents in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia in the early-1980s-set The Teacher, the latest drama from directing-writing team Jan Hřebejk and Petr Jarchovský.
The Teacher is played by Zuzana Mauréry, and her story of misdeeds is told largely in flashback after a particularly heinous act has resulted in school officials calling a meeting with parents of her students.
In an inventive opening sequence, students arrive for the first day of school while their parents come to the same classroom months later for an overview of her actions.
Mrs. Drazděchová, widow of a Soviet official of some distinction who also has a sister in Moscow, begins the first day of school by asking her pupils to introduce themselves with two pieces of information: their names, and their parents’ occupation.
Those occupations run a wide spectrum from doctor and lawyer to beautician, handyman, and taxi driver; gradually, the filmmakers reveal what Mrs. Drazděchová plans to do with this information. It begins fairly innocently, with a favour here and there from a parent who can provide some help. And most are happy to oblige.
But soon Mrs. Drazděchová is giving some inside advice to parents she’s getting friendly with, and even letting them know exactly what their children should be studying to prepare for upcoming tests. And her pupils are being put to work cleaning her flat instead of other after-school activities.
And then there are the parents that don’t play ball. No surprises: their sons and daughters are scoring poorly on exams, reprimanded, and even singled out in class.
There’s a bit of a one-note, one-sided vibe throughout The Teacher – Mrs. Drazděchová is clearly in the wrong – but that’s also reflected in the sensibilities of the characters onscreen. Like us, they realize there’s something bad going on here, but precious few are willing to do anything about it.
While focusing on this particular case a teacher misusing her position for personal gain through the communist system, the film also represents a microcosm of what was happening on a grander scale throughout the country during the era. And elsewhere, this system of exchanging favors for services might have been commonplace, and without such negative connotations.
In supporting roles, Ondřej Malý, Martin Havelka, and many others offer up believable performances as parents affected by the teacher’s actions – on both sides of the spectrum. Peter Bebjak is particularly effective as a man whose wife has fled the country and now earns the unwanted affections of Mrs. Drazděchová.
But young Tamara Fischer gives the standout performance here, as a student and hopeful gymnast who unwittingly becomes the object of the titular character’s scorn.
The Teacher is set in 1980s Bratislava (and dialogue is, appropriately, in Slovak), with location filming effectively covering the area. While the action is mostly limited to scenes in classroom and apartments, the era is faithfully re-created.
Sparse, lean, and to-the-point, Jarchovský and Hřebejk’s The Teacher offers up a lesson best not forgotten.