The Teacher (Ucitelka)

Slovakia (2016) Dir. Jan Hrebejk

Communism – great in theory, unattainable in practice. Like most ideals with such humanitarian intentions, they are ruined by how open they are to abuse from those at the top. The prolific Czech duo of director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky explore this very flaw in this simmering tale of pseudo-socialist hubris set in the classroom.

In 1983, widowed teacher Mária Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry) joins a small school in suburban Bratislava, and in getting to know her new students, asks them what each of their parents’ occupations are. But this harmless teacher-student discussion soon reveals Drazdechová’s mutual back-scratching scheme with the parents – she takes advantage of their skills in exchange for good grades for their kids.

Most parents happily comply, except airport accountant Marek Kucera (Csongor Kassai) refuses to risk his job sneaking cakes to Drazdechová’s sister in Russia, so his daughter Danka (Tamara Fischer) receives deliberately poor grades and is routinely humiliated in class. Eventually Danka attempts suicide forcing her parents to file a complaint against Drazdechová but it needs the support of the parents, most of who refuse to sign.

The Teacher is a biting allegorical satire that is low on actual laughs but steaming with trenchant commentary in looking back at the period when the former Czechoslovakia was in its last decade of Communist rule. A peaceful and non-violent revolt against the ruling Communist Party in 1989 dubbed the Velvet Revolution saw a change in direction for the Czechs and democracy introduced for the first time since 1941.

Jarchovsky’s script might not be a joke fest but it is witty in its incisive deconstruction of the Communist ideal of “All for one and one for all” and in detailing the way abusing this principle completely undermines it. Of course, grades for favours isn’t a new practice nor is it exclusive to Communism but via this story, the message is that corruption is corruption no matter how you wish to dress it up.

Resembling an Almodóvar woman, with her permed hair (courtesy of a parent, natch), brightly coloured wardrobe and sharp tongue, Drazdechová is able to get away with her venal machinations by being the head of the local Communist Party. Her initial breezy manner and cheery disposition gradually erodes to reveal a fiery, waspish harridan with a lacerating arsenal of staunch party rhetoric-filled diatribes to quash any insurgence in her classroom and beyond.

Whether it is providing food, fixing appliances or other bespoke services Drazdechová is not short of willing participants in her illicit profit sharing scheme and the nervy head teacher (Ina Gogalova) is not so much powerless but simply terrified to act against her, until the complaint from Kucera provides an opportunity to (maybe) oust her through the proper procedures.

But the problem is convincing the other parents to back their complaint which is the Herculean task head of them. The head teacher calls a parents meeting to discuss the matter which forms the framework of the story, with the incidents of Drazdechová’s reign of terror shown in flashback form, along with the vital backstories of the victimised pupils.

Riffing on the classic 12 Angry Men it is the few versus the many, but the twist here is that the resisting faction is the majority and technically have already had their vote bought, buttressed by the Communist indoctrination to doing right by their comrades. The classroom might have more people in it – a few women to boot – but Hrebejk is able to replicate and build upon the same sense of claustrophobic tension and palpable frustration engendered by the conflicting intransigence of both sides.

This isn’t a tale of supposition and wild theories – the facts are indisputable for the parents of the victims, very disputable for the others, presumably to do with avoiding a public admission to being complicit in this corruption – but the lack of proof in these pre-mobile phone days makes it harder to corroborate the stories. Also, political pressure plays a huge part in some of the parents clearly holding their tongues.

Luckily for the Kucera’s they have an ally in former wrestler Binder (Martin Havelka), a paunchy, dyspeptic bully to his own son Filip (Oliver Oswald) until learning Filip was only missing wrestling practice because of Drazdechová’s malfeasance – Filip stood up for Danka when she was being teased by the others and paid the price.

Caught in the middle is Václav Littmann (Peter Bebjak) the parent of new student Karol (Richard Labuda), perhaps the butt of the worst example of Drazdechová’s manipulation and myopic politicking. A scientist, Littmann’s wife left her family to work overseas thus is considered a traitor to the Party, which Drazdechová tries to capitalise on with all the subtlety of a rhino in an aviary, but Littmann is too nice to recognise this whilst Karol is the one who suffers.

The most impressive thing about this film is how Hrebejk and Jarchovsky manage to tell a compelling and sinuous story, flesh out all the main characters, and get their message across inside 98 minutes. The narrative takes a little while to get used to with all the to-ing and fro-ing between time lines but it pays off in the end, making the story feel more complete and all the richer for it.  

Heavily rewarded on the awards circuit, Zuzana Mauréry is an absolute powerhouse as Mária Drazdechová. A terrifying creation to stand alongside legendary screen villains like Darth Vader, Freddy Krueger and Hannibal Lecter, Drazdechová is a woman of solipsistic intensity with a gift for subtle persuasion, and Mauréry’s incendiary essaying of this is a treat.

Don’t be fooled by the documentary style end credits revealing the kids’ futures – The Teacher isn’t based on a true story but no doubt its inspiration has a factual basis. Yet corruption has become institutionalised even in a democratic society, ironically making Drazdechová one teacher we all can learn from.

A clinic in captivating filmmaking and engaging storytelling.