Monday, November 20, 2017

The Teacher

Directed by Jan Hřebejk
Written by Petr Jarchovský
Showing at the Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, thru November 29

Jan Hřebejk and Petr Jarchovský’s new film, The Teacher, tells an age-old story of totalitarian abuse, this time in the setting of a middle school in 1983 Czechoslovakia, then under communist rule. The children start the school year with their new teacher, Mária Drazdechová (award-winning Zuzana Mauréry), and thus begins a horrendous odyssey for both the children and their parents, as Drazdechová invidiously hijacks their lives. From day one, she works through the children to obtain services from their parents—medicines, luxury foods, taxi rides, and even a hoped-for lover. She rewards students whose parents comply by providing tips on the next day’s quiz. The children of refusers receive failing grades and otherwise fall victim to her lies and bullying. She accuses young Karol of distributing food vouchers obtained through his “disgraced mother” who defected to the West, and she claims Filip’s father sexually assaulted her.
Normally such stories of blackmail and political corruption involve adults who find themselves powerless to fight the system, for any protest means loss of a job, imprisonment, or even execution—all under false charges. In The Teacher, the drama is intensified because the victims are children. In her classroom, Drazdechová singles out three non-compliers—Danka, Filip, and Karol—for her sadistic treatment, with Danka eventually attempting suicide and the boys erupting with their suppressed trauma. Throughout her torture and machinations, Drazdechová maintains a sweet, baby-faced manner—all innocence—which adds to her evil.
The movie’s excellent, knitted construction helps develop the characters, especially the three families who decide to take a stand against Drazdechová. During the film’s opening credits, we watch lively children arriving to a communist-era school, and then, at night, we see somber adults filing into the same building. At first it seems the adults have come for night school, but once the action starts, we learn they have come for a meeting on whether or not to sign a petition to remove Drazdechová as a teacher. The school’s “head teacher” runs the meeting, having received a parental complaint. We soon learn, however, that she knows all about Drazdechová and hopes that at last an opportunity has come to be rid of her.
The story moves back and forth from the parents’ tense meeting room to flashbacks of Drazdechová’s connivances with both children and parents. Some of the parents who support Drazdechová—who also heads the school’s communist party organization—benefit from the party as judges, doctors, and bureaucrats. They toe the party line. Most of the working-class parents support Drazdechová because they want their kids to receive good grades in return for small services, such as hairdressing. This movement back and forth from a pseudo jury room to Drazdechová’s real-life persecution of her victims creates depth, drama, and balance in the film. We come to know the characters intimately—including their names—Kucera, Binder, Littman. We feel a strong urge to be in the deliberation room with them, so that we can battle the despicably dishonest people in control and lend a hand to those who insist on the truth. Which side will triumph?
An epilogue concludes the movie—a moral to the story. Communism has ended with the Velvet Revolution. Havel’s picture has replaced Husák’s in a middle-school classroom. What we’re shown in one quick scene is both ludicrous and true: You can’t stop evil—it just finds a new place to park, and the fight to rout it out has to start all over again.