Zuzana Maurery in The Teacher (Film Movement)

Beware of comrade teacher. Oh, she looks harmless enough with her kewpie-doll perm and brown button eyes. But there’s no confidence she won’t betray, no boundary she’ll respect, and no weakness she will hesitate to exploit. In the paranoid, threadbare Czechoslovakia of 1963, the veteran Communist Party member gleefully wields the upper hand over her students, their parents, and even the school’s headmistress. How far can she go, and who dares to stop her?

Those are the deceptively simple questions at the heart of Jan Hrebejk’s tightly focused and plotted film that starts as a mild bureaucratic satire and burgeons into a hybrid psychological thriller and morality tale. Sad and bitingly comic, The Teacher excels at pointing out the ugliness specific to communism while gently reminding us that human malice springs eternal.

Tension mounts through adroitly timed flashbacks that connect a chain of unpleasant events to a crowd of angry parents in a foul-tempered parents/teacher conference. Marie Drazdechova (a spot-on Zuzana Maurery) starts the first day of school by asking her students for their names and their parents’ occupations. She will request—or rather extort—favors based on what the parents do: air transport of a cake to a sister in Moscow, appliance repairs, home cleaning services, and more. Students whose parents comply flourish in comrade teacher’s classroom. Those whose parents balk are shunned, shamed, and worse.

How kids and families deal with the brazen blackmail makes for tense scenes at home. One couple’s quiet resistance leads to tragedy for their child; another household turns inward, unleashing harsh violence that breaks through the movie’s hushed, deliberate surface. In a supposedly classless society, class shapes responses to abuse of authority, and perceived loyalty or disobedience to the state plays a big part in how complaints are handled. Offhand quips feel darker when we realize that they’re a survival mechanism more than any expression of real humor.

Parallel to The Teacher’s social critique runs a character study of a lost soul’s rank manipulation of others. Drazdechova at first comes off as no more than a petty annoyance, but she alarmingly evolves into something far more dangerous. Wheedling, threatening, a high-handed party autocrat one minute and a victim proclaiming her defenselessness the next, the teacher goads herself on to ever more risky and outrageous acts. It’s a measure of Maurery’s skill that she can make us see the pitiable side of this lonely woman, surrounded by toadies but utterly friendless.

The Teacher takes its time to show its hand, but the film’s intimate views of treachery in action tighten and draw the viewer in deep. The production design reveals not only communism’s shabbiness but its cozy sentimentality, further immersing viewers into a tightly sealed world where everyone watches (and tattles on) everybody else. Cool and yet absorbing, The Teacher lets the suspense build.

Written and Directed by Jan Hrebjek
Released by Film Movement
Slovak with English subtitles
Slovakia/Czech Republic. 103 min. Not rated
With Zuzana Maurery, Zuzana Konecna, Csongor Kassai, Tamara Fischer, and Martin Havelka