The Teacher (2017)

250 The Teacher

Some genre labels are highly deceptive. The Czech Republic produced film The Teacher (2016) is labelled a comedy drama but there is little humour in this dark political satire about totalitarian regimes. Minimalist in dialogue and action, it paints a sombre picture for the youth of the communist world.

The storyline is simple but the atmosphere chilling. It is 1983 in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia and a long way from the child-centred education systems familiar to modern Western audiences. On the first day of school term, new teacher Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Mauréry) asks each pupil to stand up and declare their parent’s occupation. As the powerful chairwoman of the local communist party committee she seems over-confident as the camera pays close attention to her notebook of free services to be called upon. When the pupils inform their parents what happened, a cycle of silent complicity is triggered. Low performing pupils whose parents agree to Maria’s hints, such as a free haircut, a fridge repair, or housecleaning, suddenly show an improvement in their school marks. High performing students whose parents do not curry the teacher’s favour see their marks and future career prospects spiral downwards; one even attempts suicide. School authorities are intimated and there is no higher avenue of appeal. Both parents and pupils know that something sinister is happening as their school becomes a place of terror.

The central narrative premise is so disturbing that little embellishment is needed to portray the moral brutality of a corrupt political system. Sub-plots of parent meetings and conspiring pupils add texture to drama. The desaturated filming palette conveys the cold fear of life under communist control and the acting style has a realistic, almost cameo quality that intensifies the trauma of Maria’s victims. Zuzana Mauréry and the support cast are largely unknown but are perfect in their roles. Mauréry is particularly effective in portraying a smugly callous disregard for her pupils with a veneer of smiling innocence that masks her ruthless exploitation. While the teacher may depict the corrupt face of totalitarianism it is the parents who reciprocate the mass compliance necessary for propping up such regimes.

It would be hard to describe this film as entertaining. There are few light moments and little to laugh at when depicting the communist way of life.  Being sub-titled, some loss of dialogue nuance is inevitable but the message is unmistakable. With an authentic voice and sense of place, this is a gripping allegory for the moral corruption endemic to communism.

3-half

Director:  Jan Hrebejk

Stars: Zuzana Mauréry, Zuzana Konecná, Csongor Kassai

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