Students learn where power lies

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The Teacher (M). Director: Jan Hrebejk. Starring: Zuzana Mauréry. 103 minutes

Zuzana Mauréry in The TeacherWhen misused power remains unchallenged, it is the most vulnerable who suffer most. The truism finds acerbic embodiment in the Slovak-Czech black comedy The Teacher, whose setting in 1983 communist-ruled Czechoslovakia provides a historical backdrop that doubles as an analogy for any socio-political context where power can be a means to personal ends.

It opens in a classroom, where new teacher Mária Drazdechová (Mauréry) instructs her young students to stand and introduce themselves. Oddly, 'Comrade' Drazdechová asks each student to state not only their name but also what their parents do for a living, which facts she jots in a notebook. Her charges, eager to please teacher, are blithely forthcoming.

Cut to a year later, and to a meeting of the students' parents, who are debating the professional fate of the teacher — who, it seems, is also chairperson of a local Communist group. Something dire has occurred in recent months to bring Drazdechová's sojourn to a head. The Teacher unpacks that drama through terse dialogue and flashbacks.

It quickly becomes apparent that she has been trading children's grades for parents' favours. In this, she exploits sympathy for her status as the widow of a deceased Communist officer, as much as her ability to manipulate her students' academic outcomes. Broadly, students score well when their parents can afford, or are willing, to succumb to her bribes.

And broadly, it is the parents of students who have scored well in tests that are her fiercest defenders during the meeting. But there is also a silent majority, seemingly reluctant to speak up one way or the other until they know which way the chips are going to fall. Amid the bickering between a few complainants and defenders, The Teacher builds suspense around these silent others.

The lines of sympathy do not run cleanly. Drazdechová's fiercest opponent is a former pro wrestler whose parenting style, and confrontations with Drazdechová, are marked by verbal and threatened or actual physical violence. Another father, concerned for his daughter's academic and personal wellbeing, has attempted to fulfil an illegal request that is well above his paygrade.

 

"The truly powerless, and unequivocally sympathetic, figures in all of this are the children, whose present and future wellbeing lie at the feet of these grown-ups and their power games."

 

The truly powerless, and unequivocally sympathetic, figures in all of this are the children, whose present and future wellbeing lie at the feet of these grown-ups and their power games. One attempts suicide in the face of pedagogical exploitation and seeming parental ineffectualness. Another takes aggressive action against the perceived forces of oppression.

Featuring brusque, loaded dialogue, uniformly astute performances and a briskly disjointed structure that keeps each new plot development tantalisingly close to its chest until the most apposite moment, The Teacher manages to be both entertaining and deeply cynical; a fable that both illuminates and transcends its very particular historical context.

 

 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Teacher, Jan Hrebejk, Zuzana Mauréry, Czechoslovakia, communism


 

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Existing comments

A nice review of an excellent film. I disagree, however, with your description of the film as cynical. It's full of rage and an implied call to resist
Jonathan Shaw | 30 November 2017


I agree with TIm's fine review, including his word 'cynical'. What I particularly enjoyed about the film was its variation in tone - at times it was highly comical, at others very depressing. The teacher was charismatic and persuasive, useful qualities in pursuing her blatant corruption. Tim is right that this is a sendup not only of the Communist system, but of any system open to the use of power to achieve personal ends. The most cynical moment of the film was the very last frame, suggesting that nothing really changes.
Rodney Wetherell | 30 November 2017


It would be interesting to see where else in the world abuse of power in relation to education goes on! ... and we mustn't forget to look at the stone in our own eyes first.
Mary Tehan | 30 November 2017


Tim has fundamentally misunderstood the role of the silent majority in the film, who only abandon their support of the teacher when they learn that her students have a very low success rate in secondary school. They care only for their kids, no one else's.
Ian Rogers | 30 November 2017


The film and Tim Kroenert's review are timely reminders of the injustice done to children in the charge of ideologically inspired teachers.
John Kelly | 01 December 2017


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