The Teacher provides a lesson on Communism

B Drama
Written by Petr Jarchovský
Directed by Jan Hrebejk

The new middle school teacher expects her students – and their parents – to make life easier for her. She wants them to clean her home, do her errands, even smuggle a cake into another country. In exchange, she’ll slip them information that will help them get good grades. Those who refuse face humiliation and failure.

How does she get away with it? The Teacher is set in 1982 Czechoslovakia. Communism still reigns, and the title character ranks high in the local Communist Party. In theory, she reports to the Head Teacher. In reality, she can get away with almost anything.

Outwardly, she’s as sweet as pie. She smiles warmly at her charges and their parents. She acts as if their favors are done out of love. When one mother helps her out, she offers to pay her for her troubles. The mother, of course, turns down the money. She knows that the real payment will come in the form of good grades.

But when a student or parent refuses her requests, she turns into a monster. She intentionally gives a girl the wrong information, then calls her stupid in front of the entire class. Come lunchtime, the school bullies have a field day in the cafeteria, leading to an attempted suicide.

Another victim has a violent and abusive father who wants his son to be a strong fighter. The father reacts with his fists when the boy skips wrestling class, not knowing that the boy is spending time cleaning his teacher’s apartment.

A new student has a much better father, but no mother – she’s escaped to the West, making the father and son outcasts in society. The teacher wants an entirely different type of favor from this father – she wants to be his lover.

The film’s structure is built around a parents’ meeting at the school. As they argue about what should be done, flashbacks show us what has happened – not always in chronological order. The Head Teacher, presiding over the meeting, hopes that with enough evidence and signatures, she can fire a party member. But how many people would dare sign such a petition?

The back-and-forth structure doesn’t help the story. A straightforward telling would have been more suspenseful and effective.

The ending disappointed me. I can’t tell you why without spoiling the movie.

Back in April, I reviewed a Russian film called The Student. It also showed totalitarianism taking over a public school. Only in that case, the oppressive ideology was fundamentalist Christianity. I think they would make a great double bill.