The primary setting of the “The Teachers’ Lounge” — which, despite the title of Germany’s Oscar submission, is a sixth-grade classroom — is a microcosm of the larger world. This environment is the fiefdom of teacher Carla Nowak, played by a subtly expressive Leonie Benesch, who renders her character as if she were the enlightened leader of a tiny, democratic city-state: one who rules not with an iron fist but with a velvet glove. At one early point, Carla invites her students to vote on whether she should share individual test grades with the whole classroom, but then deftly overrides the majority, eager to know where they stand in the pecking order, with a persuasive speech about privacy rights.
Carla’s turf, which she presides over and calls to order with a series of claps, is a mirror of the outside world, with all its diversity, divisions and discontents. Yet as the film gets underway, there are no more than the expected disruptions. A girl is caught skipping class, in possession of a cigarette lighter. A boy is accused of cheating.
Petty theft is a bit more rampant: Things have been going missing lately, including, oddly, a box of 1,000 pencils — no, it’s not set in the 1890s — and cash from the piggy bank where teachers drop coins to cover the cost of coffee in the titular sanctuary (which turns out not to be much of one in the end). One teacher mentions, with innuendo, the new cleaning staff.
After one theft of cash, a student named Ali (Can Rodenbostel) is fingered as a suspect during an awkward interrogation of his classroom’s officers. This is followed by a “voluntary” search of the students’ wallets, imposed on Carla’s classroom by administrators, that triggers her privacy meter. But when a large amount of cash is found in Ali’s wallet — money that his Turkish immigrant parents insist was meant for the purchase of a gift — accusations of racial profiling are slung, and not without reason. Carla, who is of Polish descent and looked upon with some side-eye by a few of her fellow teachers, is sensitive to such assumptions.
But what sets this low-boil thriller to bubbling — and the status quo to spinning out of control — is when Carla engineers a sting: setting her laptop camera to surreptitiously record after she intentionally leaves her wallet unattended in the lounge. Inspecting the video later, Carla implicates a member of the front office staff, Friederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau), based only on the sleeve of a blouse that is visible on-screen.
It is hardly an open-and-shut case. And Carla, whose math lessons reinforce that proof must follow from proof, in an unbroken chain, knows that.
Making matters worse is the fact that Friederike, suspended from work while investigation of the crime proceeds, is the mother of one of Carla’s brightest and most promising students, Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch). Oskar deeply feels the injustice of the presumption of his mother’s guilt by the principal (Anne-Kathrin Gummich), a presumption that trickles down to him after Oskar’s classmates get wind of the scandal and start teasing him. And Carla’s peers bristle at the questionable nature of her workplace surveillance.
When Oskar begins fomenting outright rebellion, inciting the staff of the school newspaper to publish a hatchet-style profile of Carla, and the other teachers begin ostracizing Carla, the seeds of a coup d’état undermining Carla’s benevolent dictatorship are planted.
Only the third feature from writer and co-director Ilker Catak, who won a student academy award in 2015 for his film school project “Fidelity,” “Teachers’ Lounge” is far more than a conventional whodunit, though it does build a nice head of suspense as it grapples with themes of justice, doubt and bias.
Its larger message is also one worth hearing, though for many it won’t exactly be news: In an age of cancel culture, the classroom is a battlefield — if not a literally bloody one (and it sometimes is just that), then at least the site of metaphorical bomb-throwing.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some strong language. In German, Polish, Turkish and English with subtitles. 98 minutes.