Monday, August 28, 2017

The Teacher: A Little Bit of Power can be a Dangerous Thing

During the Communist era, teachers were supposed to serve as the state’s first line of indoctrination. Of course, most disbelieved the propaganda they repeated by rote. However, Maria Drazdechova, teacher of history and Slovak, also serves as the local party chair. That makes her uncharacteristically zealous and decidedly dangerous, so when she makes it clear she expects favors from her students’ parents, most of them simply comply. Unfortunately, her abuse of power causes a tragedy that will force the parents to choose a side in Jan Hrebejk’s The Teacher (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York, at Film Forum.

On the first day of class, Drazdechova has each pupil stand and tell her what their parents do for a living. The purpose is obvious. She wants to know what they can do for her. The repercussions are also quickly apparent. The parents who deliver goods and favors receive tips as to which study problems their children should give special attention to. Those who cannot, will see their children punished, like Danka Kuncerova, a bright student-gymnast, who is regularly shamed and belittled in class, because her father, a back-office accountant at the airport, is unable and unwilling to call in favors on her behalf.

When the pressure finally breaks Kuncerova, it gives the decent head teacher an opening to call an emergency parents meeting. As they argue and deliberate, we witness Drazdechova’s tyrannical classroom behavior in flashbacks. However, the Communist teacher’s partisans clearly have the advantage. Besides the Kuncerovas, her most vocal critics are the highly problematic parents of Filip Binder, the wrestling prodigy who has a crush on Danka. The unlikely wildcard might turn out to be Vaclav Littmann, a former academic reduced to menial labor after the defection of his wife. Much to his discomfort, Drazdechova has made her romantic interest all too evident, but that also put him in a position to witness her full manipulativeness.

The Teacher is an emotionally grueling film, because it shows how Drazdechova strikes at her victims’ weakest spot: their children. It is one thing to stand up to do the right thing when you will be the only one to face the consequences and quite another when your son or daughter stands to take the punishment. They end up with a classic prisoners’ dilemma—it is in their collective interest to stand against Drazdechova, but individually, they each have an incentive to knuckle under.

Zuzana Maurery is absolutely chilling and enraging as the venal Drazdechova. One minute she adopts a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth façade and the next she lashes out at her young charges with emotional savagery that will turn your stomach to ice. Frankly, it is such a disturbing performance, because it is so true to life. Likewise, it is truly harrowing to watch Tamara Fischer’s breakdown as Danka. Yet, the film’s real heart and ethical soul is supplied by Martin Havelka as Filip Binder’s gruffly remorseful beat-first-and-ask-questions-later father Jaroslav.

For his first film in Slovak, Hrebejk channels Twelve Angry Men and similarly claustrophobic morality plays. Essentially, it combines elements of his critical examinations of the Communist experience, like Kawasaki’s Rose, with his domestic dramas, such as Honeymoon and Beauty in Trouble. Although Hrebejk has positioned Teacher as a universal exploration of the dynamics of powers, the thornier aspects of Petr Jarchovsky’s uncompromising screenplay, such as Littmannova’s defection are very particular to that dark era. It is a razor-sharp film that is almost unbearably gripping. Very highly recommended, The Teacher opens this Wednesday (8/30) at Film Forum.