"I would prefer not to."
It's a quote that filmmaker İlker Çatak loves so much that he's wearing it on a T-shirt during this interview. Furthermore, the sentiment behind it and the story that it's pulled from — Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener — provided inspiration for his new film, The Teachers' Lounge.
The film follows Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch), an idealistic new teacher at a German secondary school. When the school launches an investigation into a spate of petty thefts, Carla objects to their methods, especially when one of her students is implicated; however, when she takes matters into her own hands, her good intentions devolve into increasingly bad decisions. By the time her own seventh-graders begin turning on her, The Teachers' Lounge is no longer a drama about a dedicated educator and instead a full-on thriller, with tensions ratcheting up to the breathless end.
Like Bartleby, the Scrivener before it, The Teachers' Lounge is also an allegory that leaves plenty of room for the audience to draw its own conclusions. Directed by Çatak from a script he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Johannes Duncke, the film sets out to comment on society beyond the walls of the classroom, touching on societal issues of prejudice, policing, racism, misinformation, surveillance, and the thin line between democracy and dictatorship.
At the 96th Oscars, The Teachers' Lounge is nominated for Best International Feature Film.
"The beauty of it all is that this is all very unexpected," Çatak tells A.frame. "I mean, it's craziness. It feels like a fairy tale. And when I look at all the other filmmakers — such as Jonathan Glazer, Wim Wenders, Matteo Garrone — and I see those films, I'm like, 'Am I really amongst these brilliant minds? Is this really happening?' So you can imagine I'm over the moon. We have already won."
A.frame: The inciting incident was something that actually happened to you at school. What happened, and what made you want to revisit it as the jumping off point for this film?
I went to school in Istanbul, together with my co-writer Johannes, and we had these two boys in class that were actually stealing. And we all knew it, but nobody wanted to be the snitch. But at some point, the school found out and they came into the class, and it was kind of a trap for them, where they said, 'Girls — out. Boys — put your wallets on the table, and come to the front of the room.' And they found all that money in their pockets. When we talked about it later, Johannes and I thought it could be a good kickoff for a story. And then Johannes told me a story about his sister, who's a math teacher in Cologne in Germany, who had a similar kind of thing going on with thefts. There was a secretary involved and all. What we thought was interesting is when a society, such as a school community, is being poisoned with all this speculation and these prejudices and stuff like that. We quickly realized that this could also be a film about our times, about the societies that we live in.
The school acts as a microcosm for society at large. How did that let you explore the ideas and the themes that you wanted to explore in the film?
School is a great playground, because you have hierarchies. You have people in charge. You have this student body, which kind of represents the people. You have the school newspaper, which represents the media. And when we did our research, you could see that every school has different policies. There are schools that have surveillance, for instance, like in China. There are schools that are like the Scandinavian model, where the teachers want to be friends with the student body and have no hierarchies. And then there are schools who preach that law-and-order kind of speech, and they say, 'We have zero tolerance policies, blah, blah.'
We thought it would be interesting to locate this school and this community a bit more on the right side of the political spectrum, when they say stuff about privacy like, 'If you don't have anything to hide, you don't have anything to fear.' All this kind of nonsense that we are being seduced with in our times right now, but without realizing that we are giving away a lot of ourselves, actually. And the reason why this film ends with this tiny little boy on a chair like a king is because he's actually protecting our democratic values. He's saying no to hierarchies, and if you think about it, the fact that we live in a society is because somebody at some point said no to someone in charge. This is the power of saying no.
The last shot is so evocative. How did you arrive at that final image? Was it always how you imagined the film ending?
No, it wasn't actually how I imagined the film ending. It was Johannes' idea to put it in there. I actually had a bet going on with my producer. My producer was like, 'Do we really need to do this shot?' And I was like, 'Come on, let's do it for the sake of Johannes. I'm going to shoot it, and then we can see later.' And he said, 'Let me bet a hundred euros that you're not going to use it.' And I said, 'Okay, a hundred euros.' And the day when I showed him the rough cut, he saw the film and after it, he turned to me, pulled out his wallet and he puts the hundred euros in my hand. But I was kind of insecure about it! Because in the grammar of the film, it's kind of a shift in the perspective. And he said, 'You know what? You don't want to be one of those arthouse films that end on a silent note. Let's have a bang on the end!' And that was that.
Have you spent your hundred euros yet?
I mean, once you come to L.A. and you realize how expensive things are, a hundred euros aren't a lot! [Laughs]
You direct the actors playing the students, especially Leonard Stettnisch, to these really wonderful performances. What did you find is your secret to working with young — and, in this case, first-time — actors?
The secret to working with children is to treat them like colleagues. I told them in the very beginning that I'm not their boss, but we're colleagues. And I expect them to have work ethics, to know their lines, to go to sleep early, to be a professional. I talked to them, and I showed my own vulnerabilities. I think they felt seen, because I was really interested in their world. I didn't come to set and say, 'Okay, let's do this.' No, I took the time to speak to them, to ask them how they are, to ask them what they dream about, what they fear, and I took them seriously. But I think the crucial moment was one speech that I gave to them on a day where they were a little hyper.
I said, 'Guys, I'm going to say something to you, which is crucial. Here's the news that everybody knows: We're all going to die one day.' Just like that. 'We're all going to be dead, but this film is going to be around, and your children and your grandchildren will watch it and say, 'Oh look, this is dad or mom and this is grandma.' So, you better make sure that you get this right, because what we are shooting here is going to last.' And I think they got the idea.
The film doesn't provide any easy answers and leaves room for ambiguity, in an exciting way. As you've taken the film around the world, have you noticed that it plays differently with different audiences?
Well, I haven't seen how the film resonates with Asian audiences yet. That would be interesting, because of their relationship to surveillance. I realized the difference with U.S. audiences. They have been much more vocal, and I think it's got to do with the fact that people are expecting some sort of gun violence in this film. There is a very deep fear of gun violence, and I think that's the main difference between U.S. and European audiences. I haven't been able to go and sit in theaters in Turkey, but we get really good feedback, but I would love to at some point.
Your parents are Turkish, you were born in Berlin and later lived in Turkey yourself. What does it mean to you to have your film chosen by Germany to represent it at the Oscars?
I think the success of this film is also the success of a migrant story. Because you need to think about it like that. My grandfather, he came to Germany in the late '60s as a factory worker. He was illiterate — he learned to read and write when he came to Germany — and within two generations, his grandson earns this country an Oscar nomination. And this is something that I just want to point out and leave out there for all of the people who don't want to understand that, who don't want to acknowledge that. I think this is Germany welcoming a migrant worker who wants to provide for his family, and it's also my cultural heritage that made me who I am. So, I'm a German and I'm a Turk. This is the success of both cultures.
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best International Feature Film category for an interview.