Director: Jan Hřebejk
Screenwriter: Petr Jarchovský
Country: Slovakia/Czech Republic
Runtime: 102 mins.
Australian Release Date: 23 November 2017
Previewed at: Verona Cinema, Paddington, Sydney, on 24 May 2017.
Loosely based on a real event, Jan Hřebejk’s The Teacher is set in a suburban school in Bratislava in 1983. Maria Drazdechová (the excellent Zuzana Mauréry) is a new teacher who also holds the elite position of Chair of the Communist Party at the school. This puts her in a situation where she can call the shots, and she doesn’t miss an opportunity to do so. On her first day Maria not only asks her students their names but also enquires as to their parents’ occupations. Why? Well, it gives her an insight into how useful they will be to her in the future. “Just like [Hřebejk’s Oscar-nominated] Divided We Fall wasn’t about the Holocaust or Nazism, this film is not about Communism or bullying. Our main theme is fear, opportunism, human dignity, and things like that,” says director Hřebejk.
In a society where it is important to have the right connections, the predator preys upon her victims, calling for favours in return for guaranteed good grades for her pupils, with little regard for the students’ education. She engages the parents to assist with her domestic chores and help fix her household appliances, even trying to get one of them to airlift a cake to Moscow, which would break all the rules and could easily result in the sacking of the worker. But none of that matters to Maria - she just sees it as a black mark against the reluctant parent. At a meeting assembled in an attempt to rein in her unscrupulous behaviour one of the parents asks, “What is she thinking, that she’s some kind of feudal lord?” This is the premise laid out in Petr Jarchovský’s observant screenplay examining the innate desire in people to engage in acts of power, sometimes motivated by greed but more often merely for the thrill of exercising control over others. His brilliant script succeeds in dropping bucket-loads of satire into scenes which are riddled with irony while illustrating the dark side of human nature.
The Teacher delivers a real insight into a society that brought out the worst in people. The drab era is faithfully recreated by authentic production and set design and the ‘80s fashions of the day and Martin Ziaran’s cinematography adds to the claustrophobic, oppressive, period atmosphere. It takes a skilled writer to bring these themes to the fore in the guise of Comrade Drazdéchova, a character who was made for her times, as wily and ambitious as her political masters. Jarchovský’s screenplay provides a platform for an enjoyable foray into dry, dark Czech humour that leaves many other Western comedies in its wake. The final word should go to co-producer Katerina Ondrejková, who says “The Teacher is the kind of film that sends shivers down your spine. It doesn’t matter what period the story takes place in, because it’s ‘unfortunately’ timeless. Bowing to one’s superiors just to get a small benefit is something we see around us every day. So I hope that seeing The Teacher might make us all a bit braver.” I’ll drink a Becherovka to that!