THE TEACHER

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Jan Hrebejk

Stars: Zuzana Maurery, Marek Kucera, Tamara Fischer, Ina Gogalova, Oliver Oswald, Martin Havelka, Peter Bebjak.

Bad Teacher, Czech style?

The setting for this grim drama is a suburban school in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, which is a surrogate for the systemic corruption of the country. The director is prolific veteran Czech filmmaker Jan Hrebejk, whose 2001 Holocaust-themed drama Divided We Fall was nominated for an Oscar. He has a humanist touch as he balances droll comedy with trenchant social criticism of a broken system. The Teacher explores themes that are common to much of his work – human dignity, the insidious effects of systemic corruption, moral decay, and officially sanctioned abuse of power. The disquieting tone is reminiscent of many of the critical films to emerge during the Prague Spring.

Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Maurery) is the kindly seeming new teacher at the school. On the first day of class she gets each of her students to tell her their name and she enquires about the nature of their parents’ occupation. Then Maria uses this information as a sort of bargaining tool. She calls upon parents to carry out small favours for her, initially simple chores like grocery shopping, hairdressing, carrying out small repairs. Those parents who comply find that their children are treated favourably and given passing grades.

However, those who refuse to fall in line find that their children are treated badly and fail their tes ts. Like Marek Kucera (Csongor Kassai), who is unwilling to jeopardise his job at the airport to help her send a cake overseas. Drazdechova takes out her displeasure on his daughter Danka (Tamara Fischer), an aspiring gymnast. When her demands grow more outrageous and her unscrupulous behaviour leads to a suicide attempt by one of her students, Drazdechova’s actions are brought to the attention of the school’s principal (Ina Gogalova).

When the film opens, the principal has called a secret emergency meeting of the parents in which she hears their grievances and tries to get them to sign a petition to move Maria. But, unfortunately, Maria occupies a high position within the ruling party itself and many parents are reluctant to sign, fearing the consequences. Others are happy that their children have received good marks for their school work.

The drama unfolds in non-linear fashion and is structed as a series of lengthy flashback sequences that slowly reveal the full extent of the situation. Regular editor Vladimir Barak deftly moves between the two narrative strands.

Written by long-time collaborator Petr Jarchovsky (Divided We Fall, Honeymoon, etc) The Teacher is a subtle political allegory. The scenario delivers some real insight and raises some disturbing moral issues, and the film has a strong subtext about life in a communist state. Inspired by actual events about a school teacher who manipulated her students and their parents for personal gain and power, this dark Czech drama is set in the 1980s, when the country was still under communist rule. The Teacher is a scathing study of corruption and the abuse of power that flourished under the repressive regime and is suffused with a palpable sense of anger and slowly growing air of dread.

Production values are strong, with some authentic production design from Juraj Fabry that captures the look of the era. Martin Ziaran’s cinematography bathes the film in a cool grey palette that is quite oppressive at times. Maurery is excellent as the controlling and amoral Drazdechova, and her performance won the Best Actress award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. There are also some nicely nuanced performances from some of the younger actors who play some of Drazdechova’s students.

★★★

Speak Your Mind