Around the World: The Teacher

looks at the recent black comedy from Czech film director Jan Hřebejk set in early 1980s Czechoslovakia

Over summer many of us will be going to the cinema to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters. So as an alternative this August the Nouse team is having a look at some of the gems of world cinema, which are often unfairly ignored in favour of their American counterparts. 

Image: Palace Films

The Teacher (Učiteľka) is a Slovak-language film directed by the Czech director Jan Hřebejk and written by Petr Jarchovský. The plot focuses on a new academic year (1983/84) in a school in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. A new teacher, Mária Drazdechová, played by Zuzana Mauréry, welcomes her new teen students and asks them to introduce themselves and to tell her their parents’ occupations.

As is later shown Mária begins to ask her students’ parents for various favours. One of her students’ mother who is a hairdresser cuts her hair. The other student’s father repairs Mária’s furniture. The parents try to satisfy Mária’s requests who, in return, gives better marks to their children.

However, not all of the parents are able to please Mária. The problem begins when her student Danka is required to ask her father to smuggle a cake to Moscow. Although Danka’s father works at the airport this task could cost him a job because it is strictly forbidden to smuggle anything from Czechoslovakia to Russia. Because Danka’s father refuses, Mária humiliates and bullies Danka. She gives her bad marks and her classmates make jokes of her.

Pressure and stress lead Danka to commit suicide, which thanks to her mother who saves her, is not successful. These circumstances persuade the school’s headmistress to organise a meeting in which the parents of Mária’s students should consult Mária’s inadequate behaviour and eventually to sign a petition against her. Many parents are at first scared to talk because Mária is the chair of the Communist party and thus they could harm their children’s future. However, there are even some parents who do not want to admit that Mária is not a competent teacher. Initially only Danka’s parents along with the parents of Filip, a boy who is bullied by Mária as well, are willing to sign the petition. They are quickly joined by Mr. Littmann who had seen how Mária uses her students to clean her apartment and gives good marks to his son, hoping to have a romantic relationship with him.

However, Littmann’s signature outrages some parents. Since his wife has run away to Sweden he is perceived as a traitor of the Communist regime. Nevertheless Mária’s pressure is not bearable anymore many a parent is still scared to talk and to sign the petition. The meeting comes to its end and the parents have to decide. Will they continue to accept Mária’s requests or will they sign the petition and finally get rid of Mária?

The classroom in the film reminds of a battlefield. Parents argue with each other about their children’s teacher’s teaching methods trying to persuade those who disagree with them including the headmistress about their truth. The atmosphere is very tense. The parents are afraid of their children’s future as well as the Communist regime. Nevertheless, the motto of Communism is “We are all equal” it can be clearly seen that the children come from various backgrounds. Those parents who are wealthy like the judge played by Ladislav Hrušovský doubts the opinions of those who fight against the teacher. As a wealthy man with connections he presents himself as the leader of the classroom and verbally attacks everyone with a different opinion or a lower background. Being seen as a strong person some less wealthy and even more naïve parents join him.

The scenes, which show the parents in the classroom, are darker portraying thus a gloomy atmosphere of the Communist regime in which classes play an important role. Nevertheless, the film’s attention aims particularly at the teacher each of the actors makes a contribution through their performances showing taking risks between standing up for their children or choosing further suffering in order to not make the wealthier parents angry. Mária is not presented in the meeting but her cruel actions are shown in flashbacks. The film describes the power of the Communist party and its members so well that even people who did not grow up in this regime can relate to it.

Mauréry’s performance is the cherry on top. She proves that she can take any challenge and shows various patterns of her acting talent. While it is kindness which comes from her from the very first scene Mauréry quickly begins to alternate kindness with cruelty. She is able to make you love her as well as hate her. We cannot forget to mention the brilliant performance of Danka played by Tamara Fischer and other child actors. The film offers an extraordinary experience for everyone who wants to see what kind of problems people had to deal with during Communism in Czechoslovakia.