Unscrupulously: "The Teacher"

in 51st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Clementine Van Wijngaarden

The real-life model for the main character in Jan Hrebejk’s The Teacher (Ucitelke) was apparently less beautiful and charismatic, but just as unprincipled. Screenwriter Petr Jarchovský based the story on a manipulative teacher he experienced himself in primary school in Czechoslovakia at the end of the Seventies. In an interview, Jarchovský has said that this teacher ‘played an important role in shaping my world’. And not only his: after an emotional world première at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, many in the audience who grew up in communistic countries in Eastern Europe confirmed that teachers like the one in the film were the rule, rather than the exception in their own schools.

Director Hrebejk (Divided We Fall) situates his drama in the early Eighties, in the so-called normalization period that took its shape after the Prague Spring. In this era the country tried to install a more humanistic version of communism, but society was still infused with fear, and people with power could invariably do what they wanted.

Mrs. Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry) has power: she’s a communist official, the widow of a soldier. However, as a teacher she doesn’t use her status for a higher goal, for the sake of a communist utopia, but for personal benefit. At first glance you could think she’s compassionate and kind, but her cast-in-cement smile is a fake one, her sweet-voiced words don’t have any meaning. In one of the first scenes, her first day of class, she asks each student not only to introduce themselves, but to tell her what their parents do for work, as she takes notes – clearly assessing their usefulness to her. ‘In the airport? Is he a pilot?’ ‘No, he works as an accountant.’ In her face you already sense a hint of disappointment.

Since The Teacher has the style of a courtroom drama, the story goes back and forth in time. As she’s asking the children questions about their backgrounds, we see, in parallel editing, the parents gathering for a clandestine meeting, organised by the principal of the school. Allegations have been made that she exploits her students, asking them to do favors for her, like cleaning her apartment. At the same time she manipulates the parents to perform other tasks – fixing her washing-machine, baking cakes, driving her around. In return, she might tell a parent which chapter their child should study. But if they deny her favours, the grades start to decline.

The Teacher is wonderfully cast: the parents resemble the children, not so much in physical appearance, but in the way they view the world and how they act morally. There is a scene in which one of the parents, a working class man, comes to Mrs Drazdechová’s house to tell her he is fed up with her commanding her pupils to work for her. ‘My children love to come here,’ she says. He retorts with a marvellous sense of understatement: ‘These are not your children; you don’t have children.’

In interviews Hrebejk frequently repeats that his film is not only an historical illustration of former times, but that its themes (manipulation, abuse of power, corruption) are as relevant today as in the communist Czechoslovakia of the early Eighties.

Maybe Hrebejk is afraid that his film won’t be attractive to audiences in the West, who may think it’s just another retrospect of communist times. He doesn’t need to be. The Teacher asks the kind of questions (how vulnerable you are as a human being in a group, the worries parents have about their children and what is best for their future) that are universal. Besides, the film makes use of wonderful, nostalgic art-direction and an unpretentious, but effective piano score. Most of all there is the terrific acting of Zuzana Mauréry as a monument of female manipulation (without underlying psychiatric disorder). She justly won the prize for Best Actress in Karlovy Vary.  

Edited by Demetrios Matheou