Film Review: The Teacher

The Teacher is no Dead Poet’s Society, as this tightly structured Slovakian/Czech story tells the true tale of an educator who masterfully manipulated her students to do her bidding.

As the ‘inspirational teacher’ sub-genre is such a popular one, encompassing everything from To Sir, With Love and Stand And Deliver to Dangerous Minds and Mr. Bergstrom in The Simpsons, you might assume that this Slovakian/Czech Republic co-production featured another virtuous educator working hard to enlighten her pupils.

However, prolific director Jan Hrebejk and screenwriter Petr Jarchovský’s dark, factually-based drama offers nothing of the sort, instead depicting its pre-Velvet Revolution teacher as a master exploiter, someone who knew how to use fear and more than happy to factor children into the equation.

Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Mauréry in formidable if subtle form) becomes teacher of Russian, Slovak and other subjects at a school somewhere near Bratislava in 1983. Her first day, as her early teen students introduce themselves, is strikingly intercut with the children’s parents as they assemble some time later in the same classroom to obviously deal with something very serious. The narrative then cleverly cuts back and forth from the here and now, as the adults (a grim, even grisly lot) discuss making a formal complaint about Maria, to the past, as we’re shown exactly how she so insidiously manipulated the kids.

Maria, having taken note of what her students’ parents do for a living, forced the young ones to work for her — cleaning her apartment, doing her shopping and the like — and the adults soon got involved too, as she either played the sympathy card (she’s a widow) or simply scared them, as she’s a chairperson in the local Communist party.

This leads to her quietly despicable victimisation of one girl and the attention of Mr. Binder (Martin Hvelka), whose son would have been called a jock in the West, and hapless academic Mr. Littmann (Peter Heljak), who’s pressured into not voting in the school’s toilets. That scene might, in theory, have led this one to be labelled a comedy by some, but it’s not funny.

Showcasing finely tacky period recreations, some terrific playing (the child actors are fabulous), a scathing takedown of Communism and one joke, as Maria later teaches ethics, The Teacher just for once justifies the familiar cry, “Won’t someone please think of the children?”

Rated M. The Teacher is in cinemas now.

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