To understand how the world works, sometimes all you need to do is look at the dynamics of school. Such is thesis of İlker Çatak’s new film The Teachers’ Lounge, which follows a teacher who becomes embroiled in an investigation into a case of theft. As the plot thickens, the dynamics of the school setting reflect a microcosm of wider society, as prejudice and power structures rise to the fore. With its universal relevance, thrilling plot and fantastic lead performance, it’s no surprise that the film was chosen to represent Germany at the upcoming Oscars. Awards Radar was therefore honored to speak with Çatak about the making of the film.
Shane Slater: This film touches on themes that are relevant to wider society. What made you want to tell this story in this school setting?
Ilker Çatak: The setting in and of itself is actually a pretty good playground to tell a story. To tell a story that takes place in one space, but actually has a bigger meaning. So school, you can treat as a miniature for the whole of society. Because you’ve got very similar structures. You have the dean, who’s like the president. You’ve got people in charge, you’ve got a school paper, which is representing journalism, and you have, of course, the people. We were bugged by some tendencies in our society and we thought school is a nice place or as a nice setup, to actually deal with those issues and themes.
SS: Was there anything specifically German that you were commenting on?
IC: I don’t know. But growing up in Germany, as a brown kid, I’m sure there are a couple of influences that you can also see in the film, such as the teacher being Polish, and not wanting to talk in their own language. Or the first kid who gets singled out being Turkish. So if you’ve ever been racially profiled, you will know what that means. There’s a lot of things that have to do with me and my upbringing in Germany. But I can’t say if it’s really German, except for one thing, of course, and that is how every society needs a scapegoat, you know? And it doesn’t matter if that scapegoat is, in fact, guilty or not. What matters is that the machine keeps on running. And that’s how we deal. That’s what we tried to convey in this film.
SS: The tone of the film, through the cinematography and music kept me in a state of anxiety. Can you talk a bit about how you approached the style and tone of the film?
IC: We were aware that it can have some sort of thriller element to it. But I didn’t know that it would have such an impact on the audience like that. From the very beginning, I knew that I wanted this kind of music. I talked to my composer Marvin Miller, and I said to him, “I want something which resembles a neurosis.” Which is kind of like a neurosis in your head that you can’t get out. And he would come up with ideas, which were way less redundant than the one that we ended up with. And I said, “No, let’s not vary. Let’s just really try and make something bugging, in a way.”
To me, cinema is always a bit of a search. Like, it’s not that I started out making the film and I already know what it sounds like and looks like. It’s always a search and a collaboration with my heads of departments. So for instance, the cinematography, we didn’t know that it would be in that aspect ratio. We shot tests, and we looked at them on the big screen. And then that was something that evolved. So every every decision I take is very intuitive. There are barely decisions that I take beforehand.
What I do is like stripping myself of possibilities. Like putting on a corset. For instance, one of the first very major decisions was to leave it all at the school, and not leave the school. And not go into her private space. And I would tell all the heads of departments to go with this kind of restriction. So for my DP, it would be to just try and use blue and shades of brown as colors. For my composer, it would be to just try and use four classical instruments.
SS: Adding to that intensity was Leonie Benesch, whose performance is fantastic. What was it like to work with her and get her into the zone of what this film was trying to convey?
IC: I must say, my co-writer Johannes and I, when we start writing something, we put images of people on our walls. And hers was there from the very beginning. These images wouldn’t necessarily be the people that will play the part, but just as an idea. But hers was there from the very beginning. And I really wanted to work with her for a very long time, because I saw her in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and I thought she was brilliant. And ever since, I kept track of what she did. And when she accepted the role, she had a few questions. But she trusted me and I trusted her. And I think if a part is tailor made for an actor, just like this one, then there is a hidden energy in there.
On set, we actually didn’t talk a lot. She would come and she would make an offer, I would love it, I would shoot it. And then I would just move on. And that’s why we would wrap up early every day. That’s because of her. She just nailed it every time. And she’s got this intuition, which is so valuable to me as a director. She thinks with the script and about the script. And she has her own mind, which I really like and love. She doesn’t come to me and ask for backstory or anything. She just takes the script and trusts it. That’s how we work. It was very special. It’s not always like that, of course.
SS: What was it like working with the younger actors? Their characters were so compelling and smart and aware. Were the actors themselves aware of the themes?
IC: No, there wasn’t that much awareness, I have to say. At least not with the younger kids. But working with the younger kids and also with the adolescents was just one of the best experiences I’ve had in my career. Because you have these 23 children in a class, they’re all hungry for life. They want to know things, they’re curious.
I handpicked all of them and I would have these casting sessions where I would gather groups of four to seven children, and just have them improvise with me as a teacher. And I would tell them, “Okay, you go to that demonstration on Friday. You guys are saving the planet. I’m your teacher, I forbid you to go.” And in those sessions, I would see which ones were smart and were good when arguing, or who could argue with me. And then I would call them back, have a recall and test them in front of a camera.
I would have individual interviews with them saying, “Okay, listen, we’re going to do this, it’s going to take long, it’s going to be four weeks of hard work. I want you to sleep well, I want you to eat well, I want you to behave, we’re all brothers and sisters. And if one of us, like, doesn’t feel good, then we take care.” Just to try and give them some sort of work ethic. And also tell them that it’s a responsibility. I’m not their boss, and they’re not the children. We’re colleagues. And I want them to take that seriously. I wouldn’t treat them as children.
I think that was, for them, very nice. Also, I would start off the day with a conversation, which wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with the scene. But I would start the conversation by asking them questions. How hard is it for you to apologize? What’s your relationship to your parents? What are your fears? What are your dreams? Then I would get them heated up and then I would say, “All right, now we’re going into the scene.” And I would leave it to Leone. And Leone would take over.
SS: You mentioned earlier that you weren’t sure exactly how the audiences would receive the film. Has there been anything particularly surprising or memorable about the audience reception?
IC: I think one of the most beautiful moments that I’ve had in a screening was in Germany, where I had teachers and their students sitting in the theater, and afterwards, we would have a q&a. And one of the students said, “Thank you for this film, because I wasn’t aware of how much pressure a teacher has to go through. We’re always very hard with our teachers, and we call them bad names. And watching this film now, actually gives me a sense of empathy for their job.” And that was just very moving. Because all the teachers were also very moved by that, you know? I got many responses from teachers saying, “Hey, thank you for this film. This is exactly what we go through.”
And personally, I gotta say that, for me, it was just very valuable to do that research, and to go into schools and spend some time with teachers in the lounge, in the classroom, and see them work. Because I have enormous respect for anybody who says I’m going to be a teacher and who wants to do this. It’s such a hard job, really. And it’s such an important job at the same time. So, yeah, I always feel very good when I get responses from teachers or students who watch the film.
SS: I remember a tweet where someone was mentioning the trend of films about women being accusations. Were you thinking about gender dynamics while you were writing the film, especially as a male director? And did you ever consider having the central character be a man?
IC: It was a very deliberate and very non-disputable decision to make her a woman. First and foremost, because I wanted to work with Leone. But also because I think there are some sexist moments in the film that only a woman can understand. It was also important to me to make her a person who’s not of German heritage. Because as I already said, I know what it feels like to be the only one or to have to deal with certain things.
Before the film was made, somebody said, as a feedback to our screenplay, “Hey, why don’t we learn anything about her? I want to know what her boyfriend looks like.” And I said, “Maybe she doesn’t have a boyfriend? How about that? Maybe she’s into women.” I actually don’t think it’s important for the story. I don’t think it’s important for an audience to see what their private life is like, because ultimately, it tells more about a character to see them make a decision, especially under pressure, than to see who she’s surrounding herself with. So I’m just very happy Leone made it. She has something that really stands out, I think. When you look into her face, you can interpret. It’s like a projection, you can see everything you want to see, and you can see everything you don’t want to see. This face is just so precious.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]