How does an oppressive regime empower individuals who are willing to toe the line? It’s a question that director Jan Hřebejk and his regular screenwriter Petr Jarchovský (Cosy Dens, Divided We Fall) tackle with the efficiency of a 90s psycho thriller in The Teacher. The answers are chilling and, while the final shot may be a little glib, the film offers plenty of food for thought.
The story opens in 1983 in a classroom in Bratislava. Right away we can see that all is not well – the new teacher Ms. Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry) asks her students to introduce themselves. Fairly standard procedure, but she is more interested in what their parents do for a living…
We cross-cut to a scene of the pupil’s parents gravely shuffling into a meeting with the school’s headmistress. Some have lodged a complaint against Drazdechová for abusing her position and bullying their kids. One of the principal victims is a young girl called Danka Kučerová (Tamara Fischer), a promising gymnast whose grades started suffering after her father (Csongor Kassai) refused to do the teacher a favour. Meanwhile, students whose parents were willing to help Ms. Drazdechová out saw their kids flourish – largely thanks to tip-offs about what to focus on before tests.
Disciplinary action for gross misconduct must surely be on the cards, one would think, but there’s a snag. Ms. Drazdechová is the chairperson of the school’s Communist Party branch and it’s clear that the headmistress is risking her own job by investigating the complaint. The parents are similarly worried about going against the teacher because, in Communist Czechoslovakia, people like Drazdechová had a way of getting away with things and, scarier still, making the lives of their enemies far worse.
The narrative skillfully weaves scenes from the parents meeting with incidents in the past, where we see Drazdechová coercing and intimidating her targets with her passive-aggressive methods. None of the “favours” she asks of her students or their parents seem particularly outrageous, apart from maybe asking Mr Kučera, a downtrodden airline accountant, to smuggle cake to her sister in Moscow.
Her biggest weapon as a widow is the “poor me” card, which she flourishes whenever she gets the chance, especially when putting the moves on meek former astrophysicist Mr Littman (Peter Bebjak). He’s a scholarly father who has been busted down to washing windows by the authorities after his wife fled the country, leaving him and their son living in a broken down bedsit.
Dismayingly, most of the parents aren’t willing to sign the complaint. They are either too scared of Drazdechová’s position within the Party or are happy to defend her because their kids are benefitting directly from her corrupt behaviour. Notably, it is mostly the wealthy parents who have no qualms paying off the teacher that are most eager to spring to her defence.
Drazdechová meets her match in the unlikely form of Mr Binder (Martin Havelka), an abusive father with a criminal record who refuses to go along with her schemes and is fully ready to match threat with counter-threat. Despite his crude behaviour in the parents meeting, it is his force of will that perhaps emboldens the others to eventually take a stand.
In a relatively brief 100-minute running time Hřebejk manages to unpack this multi-faceted story in gripping fashion, superbly marshalling a large cast of characters to maximum effect. There’s a lot going on here but thanks to careful editing and astute casting choices, we’re never in danger of losing track of who’s who and who did what.
Front and centre of this excellent ensemble is Mauréry as Ms. Drazdechová. Mauréry picked up Best Actress at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for her performance and she creates a thoroughly despicable character without resorting to moustache-twirling. She reminded me of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with whom she shares a similar enjoyment of the power she holds over people. The perks are nice but it is her privileged position that she relishes the most, enabling her to indulge in inappropriate behaviour without fear of recrimination. She’s a pathetic, lonely person, but the system enables her to get away with bullying the parents and their kids, and she does so without the slightest hint of remorse.
Just as Nurse Ratched was a totemic figure of “The Man” in US counterculture, Drazdechová is emblematic of the Communist regime as a whole, and the parents and children become a microcosm of the Czechoslovak society of the era. Those willing to conform and sacrifice their ideals are rewarded, while those standing up to the authorities (personified by the teacher) are punished.
Matching Mauréry in the acting stakes is Havelka as the surly Mr Binder. Reminiscent of Charles Bronson, he gives a forceful, literally balls-out performance and the best scenes in the movie are when his angered working man goes toe-to-toe with the malevolent, conniving teacher who is victimising his son. Having already fallen foul of the authorities, he hasn’t much else to lose by standing up to her, and his outspoken refusal to be cowed by the teacher or her defenders manages to tip the balance.
While The Teacher‘s setting and story are very specific – it is reportedly based on a true incident – its themes about the empowering effect of a pernicious ideology are universal and extremely relevant now. It’s a riveting watch and timely viewing during our strange days.
The Teacher is available on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This article was originally published by the Prague Daily Monitor.