The insidious use of power in an unlikely setting is the basis for The Teacher, a wickedly clever black comedy. The film is inspired by the true story of a Communist-era schoolteacher who manipulated her pupils and their families for unprecedented personal gain. Jan Hřebejk (Divided We Fall) directs.
It is the early 1980s and the start of a new term at a suburban high school in Bratislava. A seemingly kind new teacher, the middle-aged Maria Drazděchová (Zuzana Mauréry), greets her class. She asks them to introduce themselves and share what their parents do for a living, explaining that it’s important to know how their parents might collectively help the group. Soon after, she gradually begins to pressure both students and parents by seeking favours – grocery collection, handyman assistance, lifts and haircuts. Falling into line earns the pupils special treatment in class – and good grades.
Before long, Maria’s demands grow more complex and dangerous. When a serious incident finally draws her unscrupulous behaviour to her colleagues’ attention, the principal calls a secret meeting. She wants parents to sign a petition to move “Comrade Drazděchová” on from the school. But Maria’s connections with the Communist Party hang above everyone in the room. It’s soon evident that standing up for what’s right may be much easier said than done.
With production design (by Juraj Fabry) and cinematography (Martin Ziaran) that recreates the era magnificently, the truth is only revealed gradually. The mastery of the art form is in how the story is told. Vignettes slowly but surely uncover the full, ugly picture. Initially, we’re presented with a jigsaw puzzle. We’re not quite sure what’s going on. It’s a wonderfully effective technique.
The film explores how collective lethargy can lead to tragedy. But it also tackles how fear can be overcome. The story by Petr Jarchovský recalls the tone and themes of the writer’s earlier movie Divided We Fall, which was nominated for a Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2001.
Zuzana Mauréry is superb as the manipulative teacher with designs on power and control. Poised and persuasive, she presents a dangerous presence. The performances of many of the actors playing the parents, too, are compelling. They feel real.
The story draws you in and holds you tight, even as the outrage you feel builds. The Teacher may be a small film, but it is expertly handled and casts a long shadow.
Director: Jan Hřebejk
Cast: Zuzana Mauréry, Peter Bebjak, Zuzana Konecná
Release Date:23 November 2017
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television