Jan Hrebejk, “The Teacher / Ucitel’ka” (2016)
Billed as a comedy drama, Hrebejk’s “The Teacher” is a character study of how an individual uses her political status and links to exert and abuse power, and ends up corrupting the institutions and structures in which she works. The film is set in a generic town in Slovakia during the 1980s, a period when it was part of Communist Czechoslovakia and Communism as a governing political and economic ideology was at its most stagnant there and in other Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. The local junior high school hires new teacher Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Mauréry) who also happens to be the chairwoman of the local Communist Party chapter. She takes charge of a class of young teenagers and immediately asks all the students, one by one, to declare what their parents do for a living. She soon starts to demand from the students’ parents various services for free, on which the students’ grades depend: if the parents cannot or will not do what she wants, their children’s grades will suffer. Very quickly two students, Danka Kucera and Filip Binder, are in the teacher’s target sights as their parents recognise the teacher’s manipulative behaviour for what it is and refuse to do what she wants. A sub-plot develops when a third student, Karol, whose mother has gone abroad and whose astro-physicist father, Vaclav Littman (Peter Bebjak), has been demoted to washing windows, enrolls at the school and the teacher latches onto Vaclav in the hope that Karol’s parents will divorce. There is a suggestion in the film, and it is only a suggestion as the film does not elaborate further, that Karol’s mother may have defected from Czechoslovakia in order to find work deserving of her talents, and Vaclav and Karol are being punished as a result.
Fed up with the teacher’s behaviour, Danka and Filip’s parents bring their concerns to the school administrators who themselves also have concerns about her students’ performances in exams. The administrators call the parents of Drazdechova’s students for an evening meeting and this meeting is actually the core of the plot. The parents’ reactions and interactions reveal the extent to which, in the wider society, people are willing to tolerate political corruption and abuse of power because they derive short-term personal benefits along the way. They believe also that their children will benefit in the long-term; the notion that instead society will be led by mediocre bureaucrats promoted through favours, bribes and blackmail instead of through merit and achievement, with the result that the stagnation Czechoslovakia is living through comes about, would be lost on them. Confronted by the stories from Danka and Filip’s parents about the teacher’s treatment of the two children, the other parents resort to denial, suggest that Danka should see a psychiatrist and drag in Mr Binder’s criminal past, his use of physical violence against his son and the Binder family’s working-class background to belittle him and his complaints.
The film works surprisingly well and briskly in structuring the story around the parents’ meeting and bringing in flashback examples of the teacher’s manipulations of the children and their parents to make its point. Maurery excels in the role of the teacher and Bebjak as the sheepish, tongue-tied Vaclav Littman, at a loss as to how to deal with Drazdechova throwing herself all over him, makes a deep hang-dog impression. Cinematography is kept to the minimum necessary to push the plot along or to record characters’ reactions, and scenes in the film have a diorama-like quality. The colours of the film have a grey, drab quality and one notices that interior furnishings in people’s apartments have a retro-sixties look even though the film is set in the early 1980s: this may indicate how society in Communist Slovakia has become stagnant and lacking in dynamism and energy.
Subtle hints of class warfare and snobbery in the treatment of Binder during the parents’ meeting add an intriguing layer that flavours Drazdechova’s predation on the children and their parents. The sub-plot revolving around Karol has rich comedy as well as heart-breaking pathos. The film’s climax contains equal amounts of despair and hope as (spoiler alert) initially the reasons for the meeting come to naught – but then the teacher-administrators who called the meeting find unexpected support that starts small and then grows. This part of the film, more or less soundless, underlines the message that to overcome great obstacles, one needs to start small and over time a movement may gradually develop and grow. However this is followed by an anti-climax that reminds us that the kind of manipulative, predatory behaviour demonstrated by Drazdechova is not limited to Communist totalitarian police-state societies, and we must be ever vigilant against its appearance in our own societies.