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İlker Çatak • Director of The Teachers’ Lounge

“Sometimes you do everything right, but it's still wrong”


- BERLINALE 2023: We talked to the German director about his school microcosm and how it is a reflection of broader society

İlker Çatak • Director of The Teachers’ Lounge

German director İlker Çatak is presenting his social study and drama The Teachers' Lounge [+see also:
film review
interview: İlker Çatak
interview: Leonie Benesch
film profile
in the Panorama section of this year's Berlinale. We spoke to him about his intimate and thrilling portrait of an exceptional teacher as well as about the actress who plays her.

Cineuropa: Were you inspired by one event in particular? Did you use any elements of your own experience?
İlker Çatak:
My co-author Johannes Duncker and I went to school together in Istanbul, where we experienced an incident similar to the one in the film. The teachers came into the classroom and wanted to look at the children's wallets. We had forgotten about that, but then, I told Johannes about what happened to my parents. They had a cleaning lady who stole from them. My parents gave her another chance, and she stole again. What’s interesting is what kind of dynamic that sparked between my parents, because my father didn't want to give her another chance, but my mother did. That's when our own experience came back to us. On top of that, Johannes told me about another incident at his sister's school, and that inspired us for our story. We wanted to talk about stealing, prejudice and false accusations.

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What fascinates you about the school setting?
School is a great model in order to depict society as whole. You have a head of state with power, there are the people in the form of students, and there is a press body through the school newspaper. There are a lot of things that allow you to tell the big through the small.

Where exactly did you shoot?
We shot in a school in Hamburg. It's an old technical college that's no longer in use. Shooting in a real school would have been difficult, as six weeks would have been too long. We rebuilt the staff room there.

How did you research the film?
We spent time in schools. What was particularly impressive was that we saw how teachers are under a lot of pressure. There are different things happening at the same time, constantly. You might be talking to a colleague as the postman comes in, or the students want something from you. We tried to translate this pressure to the film.

What was particularly important in developing the character of the teacher?
She was supposed to be a dedicated, idealistic teacher who does everything right, but also doesn't. Sometimes you do everything right, but it's still wrong. We knew from the beginning that we would only show her at school; we're not interested in what she's like in private. A person's character reveals itself in moments of stress.

Why did you want Leonie Benesch to play the role?
I previously noticed Leonie in The White Ribbon [+see also:
film review
interview: Michael Haneke
film profile
. I was always a bit irritated that she never got to play bigger roles after that. For me, she is one of the most gifted actresses of her generation, and I wrote the role with her in mind. And when we were shooting, I saw how nice it is when you can work with smart people. You don't have to do much yourself. She's very precise, and we didn't have to communicate very much.

Can you tell us more about the visual concept?
We chose the 4:3 format to narrate narrowness in the film. We wanted to show the pressure the protagonists are under. A taller image also made it possible to show the children better and what they are doing at the desks. Two colour tones were particularly important: the blue of the school and a variation of brown tones. We also knew that we couldn't use a handheld camera for the long shots we had planned, so we used a mixture of handheld and static cameras. Moreover, the 4:3 format is reminiscent of my youth, when TV and cinema were in this format.

The mother, played fantastically by Eva Löbau, is extraordinary. What was important here in the elaboration of the character?
It was important to us that it would not be clear what she did. For Eva, the character is innocent, and that's how she developed it. There had to be a residue of ambiguity in the film. In every society, there need to be scapegoats, even if the evidence against them is ambiguous. I'm glad Eva took on the role: she's phenomenal and ever so smart.

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