“The Teacher” (“Ucitelka”)
A Little Bit of Power Can Be a Dangerous Thing
Since the arrival of Maria Drazdechova, to a Bratislava suburban school in the year of 1983, life has turned upside down for students and parents. She is a new teacher to the town and she has very strange behavior. Then one of the students tries suicide that might or might not be connected to Maria but nonetheless makes the principal call the students’ parents for an urgent meeting that will suddenly put the future of all the families at stake. They are asked to sign a petition to move Miss Drazdechova out of the school. However, the fact that the teacher has high connections within the Communist Party, everyone feel threatened. They must make a decision whether to go against Drazdechova and stand up for what they believe in at any risk, or remain silent and let things be.
Set in Slovakia in the 1980s, we see that Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry), makes her students stand up on the first day of school and state what their parents do for a living. People fear Maria feared because of her high-level communist party connections and she manages to get students and parents to do her favors, like cleaning her flat, fixing her washing machine, and sending cake to her sister in Moscow. If they refuse to help her, she retaliates by giving bad grades or humiliating students in front of their classmates. It seems that there are no limits to pleasing Mária in a world where subjection to tainted power is the most pervasive. We forget that it was a time when everyone was locked into place with the promise of social mobility that never happened.
Director Jan Hrebejk shows that there’s no way out of corruption because it is the vernacular of any and all institutions. It metastasizes dishonesty and fraud in domestic spaces and disarms men, women, and children from any possibility of leading a principled life. Here, the only way to escape is through suicide, which, as it turns out, works to further reinforce the static subjugation of those left behind. Social despair and corruption are a way of life.
The film is built around flashbacks to the inappropriate encounters inside Mária’s classroom and a present-day meeting with the school principal and parents after the student’s suicide attempt. The fact that the parents sit in the desks of their children’s very own classroom in order to decide whether to risk honesty or to get on the right side of the communist party says quite a lot— in a system run by corrupted figures, everyone is either a child or a master. Maria is corruption— she contaminates everything and we see the abuse of power at a middle school. Maria is a terrifying instructor who heads the local Communist party and uses her pupils to manipulate their parents for her own personal benefit.
But not every parent is willing or able to satisfy Drazdechova’s demands. Marek Kucera (Csongor Kassai) works as an accountant at the airport. When the teacher asks if he could facilitate the illicit transport of a cake to the Soviet Union for her sister’s birthday, he is unwilling to risk his job. But Drazdechova does not like to be crossed. She takes out her displeasure on the Kucera’s young gymnast daughter Danka Kucera (Tamara Fischer), ultimately driving the youngster to try to take her own life.
Drazdechova also has it in for Filip Binder (Oliver Oswald), a talented wrestler with a crush on Danka. At first, the brutish Mr. Binder (Martin Havelka) doesn’t understand what is going on and savagely punishes his son for missing practice, unaware that Drazdechova more or less forces kids to go to her house after school to clean and run errands. But even though Mr. Binder has a reputation as a drunk and a troublemaker, he has principles and refuses to be blackmailed into providing free work for the teacher.
Littman (Peter Bebjak) was once a respected professor of astrophysics but was demoted to manual labor after his even more brilliant wife left the country. Drazdechova takes a shine to Littmann and arranges for him to be the school’s caretaker, all the while none-too-subtly pressuring him to take a romantic interest in her.
The script is based on a real-life incident and has humor and irony. Hrebejk’s direction is smooth and the performances are uniformly excellent. This is an emotionally grueling film, because it shows how Drazdechova strikes at her victims’ weakest spot: their children. It is one thing to stand up to do the right thing when you will be the only one to face the consequences and quite another when your son or daughter stands to take the punishment. It is in their collective interest to stand against Drazdechova, but individually, they each have an incentive to knuckle under. Maurery as Maria gives a chilling performance and because it is so close to life that it is all the more disturbing.