The Teacher (2016): Belling the ‘Powerful’ Comrade

By Arun Kumar

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

The Teacher,  Jan Hrebejk, Poster, Zuzana Mauréry, Zuzana Konecná, Csongor Kassai

Czech director-writer duo Jan Hrebejk and Petr Jarchovsky have put together some interesting and original films about life in Czech Republic and Slovakia after the Velvet Revolution (which brought a peaceful end to communism in 1989). Petr Jarchovsky diffuses a wonderful complexity to his characters and Jan Hrebejk is a brilliant actor’s director, and moreover known for deftly chronicling domestic life of people across the social order. The duo have achieved international success for Divided We Fall (2000) and Up and Down (2004), both of the films could serve as a perfect introductory point to their works. Hrebejk and Jarchowsky have also made other critically acclaimed movies like Cosy Dens (1999), Pupendo (2003), and Zelary (2003). Their recent works didn’t impress me as much as the earlier works (Honeymoon released in 2013 is my least favorite one). But with the latest collaboration titled The Teacher (Ucitelka, 2016), the writer-director combination have once again made a tightly focused morality tale that lays bare the corrosive Communist past of the country. The Teacher also addresses timeless themes like abuse of authority, class discrimination without ever preaching its lesson, but rather nudging us to witness life and share the characters’ social despair and moral dilemmas.

On paper, Teacher may sound like an harsh indictment of corruption and dishonesty on grass-roots level of the society. While the narrative palpably creates the climate of fear, it also deploys the typical Czech dark humor to strengthen the film-maker’s point about authority and corruption. The film, based on a real life incident, opens with a long shot of students arriving at the public school in the morning. It’s cut to the arrival of parents to the same school premise in the night time. Director Jan Hrebejk juxtaposes the shots of children and their parents who walk through same corridors and classroom between disconnected timelines. The year is 1983 and the school is situated in the outskirts of Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia. Before revealing the parents’ night time gathering, we are introduced to the titular character named Maria Drazdechova (a splendid Zuzana Maurery). The middle-aged teacher dressed in flower-patterned skirt who exudes warm smile towards her fresh set of secondary class pupils. The first thing she does is a seemingly harmless thing: she calls every student’s name and asks them to state what their parents do for a living. This curious background check, as we learn later, is done with harmful and corrupt intention.
The secret meeting of the parents where majority of them support Maria, some out of fear and some out of misplaced sense of loyalty
The children’s parents have gathered at the school, under the watchful eyes of head-teacher, to discuss a recurring complaint on Maria Drazdechova’s behavior. Couple of parents has initiated the complaint and it’s like the ’12 Angry Men’ situation, where they have to convince the others to not implicate themselves in the web of corruption meticulously weaved by the teacher. Earlier in the narrative, it’s made clear that it’s not easy to bring down the teacher since Maria is the local chairwoman of the communist party and her influential boundaries may extend as far as Moscow. Any way, what has she actually done? The intrigue is brilliantly crafted through writer Jarchovsky’s non-linear setting, cutting between Maria’s malicious game of manipulation and the secret parents-teachers meeting where the majority of parents seem to side themselves on teacher’s side.

Maria’s curiosity in learning parents’ occupation is to make each one of them do different set of chores for her, in exchange for disclosing exam questions or bestowing good grades. She employs one parent to fix her hair, others to fix her washing machines, do electrical works, stand in long queues at the public shops, etc. Even few students do household chores in the teacher’s house after school. If the parents refuse to help her, she reacts by humiliating the students in front of the class and provides them bad grades. One of Maria’s foremost victims is Danka (Tamara Fischer), whose father works as an accountant at the airport. The girl has a fairly good IQ level and is naturally talented at gymnastics. But Maria gradually turns Danka’s school life a hell, when her father Mr Kucera (Csongor Kassai) rejects the Maria's wish to deliver a cake to her sister in Moscow (through the flight crew). While some parents showcase absurd sense of loyalty for the teacher, most others do what she asks from them out of fear. Only Mr. Kucera and Mr. Binder (Martin Havelka) comes forth to discuss the immoral network based on blackmail and corrupt favors. 
Danka (center) and her two other classmates who are treated as class 'outcasts' for not yielding to teacher Maria's wishes
Czech, Polish, Romanian, and many other Eastern European film industries have often shown excellent nuance in touching upon the awful layers of corruption that pervades every corner of the society. Although the themes and moral dilemmas addressed in these films can universally resonate with audiences, regardless of political system, the perverted communist regime of the past do seem to create a more morally suffocating atmosphere. Director Jan Hrebejk’s observation of the domestic spaces and life flowing within them has made some critics to bestow him with the label ‘Chekovian’. And, Hrebejk adeptly uses the domestic spaces to exhibit the woes of trying to live a principled life in an increasingly demoralized society. The director & writer focuses on the micro-level corruption which leads to basic subjugation of family units. Consequently, it becomes a common language that binds parent and children, citizen and the system. By making the parents sit at the same classroom of their children, it’s shown how the morally afflicted parents are as powerless as the young pupils, since the climate of fear and corruption only demands one’s willingness to surrender. We see Mr. Kucera burdened with remorse when trying to approach flight crew to send the teacher’s cake and later there’s an intense conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Binder where sex is used as the trump card to make him to kow-tow to the teacher’s misdeeds. These are some of the important instances that gracefully show how atmosphere of moral perversion can impact one’s self and invade his domestic space. 

The top notch editing allows us to side by side study the teacher’s despicable behavior and its profound impacts on the children (recalled by the parents). Director Hrebejk evokes discomfort and righteous fury at key moments, although his brand of absurd humor subtly mocks the villains of the narrative. There’s also a broad allegorical tone to the proceedings, since the teacher’s blatant manipulation has implications far beyond the school premise, especially with the behavior of powerful political spheres that’s often boosted by the dangerous status quo. But the script and direction are more interested in recognizing the layers of everyday corruption than providing a loaded political lesson. The casting and performances are spot-on. Zuzana Maurery effectively induces our wrath and she neatly plays up the character’s inherent absurdity without turning her into a caricature.

The Teacher (102 minutes) is an entertaining social critique on tainted power and how it easily spawns an atmosphere of exploitation and fraud. It blends in elements of psychological thriller and social satire without resorting to cloying sentimentality or didacticism.

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!

The Teacher (2016) - Official Trailer (YouTube)

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