The Teacher

 

 

 

We open with a school teacher in Bratislava, Slovakia in 1983 greeting her teenage pupils. She is a neatly attired, middle-aged widow with a genial manner and seems innocuous as she makes a list of her students’ names and what their parents do for a living.  What is unsuspected at this stage is that she holds the position of Chair of the Communist Party at the school and has inordinately highly placed friends in the government apparatus.  She expects favors from both pupils and parents.  Those who comply receive high marks and beneficial reports.  Those who dissent will suffer the consequences.

 

This is based on a true story that took place when the Iron Curtain, while somewhat frayed around the edges by then but still functioning, was firmly in place.  It is also a metaphor for societies living under Communist rule (or indeed any totalitarian regime). In an early flashback scene, at a secret meeting between the parents and the headmistress, some aggrieved parents try to persuade their peers to sign a complaint against the teacher in question.  Exactly as in the broader social scenario, a minority speak out, another group who have been benefiting from the ‘arrangement’ automatically side with authority while the majority sit in fearful silence.

 

Director Jan Hrebejk has based this tale on events that he experienced while at Primary school.  Despite the grim nature of the core story and the soulless and drab society in which it takes place, he has leavened the sombre mood with flashes of humor.  A bleak but amusing irony that is a feature of so many Communist-era inspired films coming out of Eastern Europe.

 

He is a skilled helmsman with cinema.  His DIVIDED WE FALL in 2000, about a childless couple who agree to hide a young Jewish friend during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.  He customarily shoots his films in widescreen format but this is a smaller and more compact result.  No doubt perfect for television, dvd home viewing or minor art house outlets.  It does not detract in any way from the movie’s effect as most shots are interiors and it also helps to convey that claustrophobic and oppressive sense of living in a society where one’s actions are spied upon and conversations must be closely guarded lest a stray word spells ruin.  He has also made an excellent choice in having Czech actress Zuzana Mauréry play the megalomaniacal teacher, Mrs. Drazdechova.

 

Mauréry walks a very tricky line between Mrs. Drazdechova’s perpetually kindly and genial veneer and her ruthless nature that clearly has no interest in either the education of her students, or their well-being.  Her demands on the parents range from time-consuming menial tasks such as fixing her washing machine or getting free treatment at a hairdressing salon to the downright dangerous as in her demand that one father, a worker at the airport, arrange to smuggle a cake to Moscow for a relative.  This could cost him his job (or worse) but failure to accede to her demand will see retribution fall on his son at school.

 

Nicely written by frequent Hrebejk collaborator Petr Jarchovsky and boasting an ensemble cast whose professionalism makes them appear exactly like your neighbors rather than actors, I don’t see this allegory containing much in the way of Oscar bait but as a wry and satirical look at the downside of human nature, it succeeds admirably.    

 

 

 

 





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