Zuzana Mauréry, Zuzana Konecná, Csongor Kassai
US theatrical: 30 Aug 2017
Czechoslovakia remained under communist rule for over 40 years in the 20th century. During this time, the totalitarian state imposed fear and paranoia on its people with interrogations and surveillance. Because political dissent would incite governmental harassment or imprisonment, survival meant blending in. Citizens kept to themselves, unsure who among their neighbors were secret informants that could jeopardize their lives.
The Teacher is a feature film set during the country’s last years of communism. Created nearly three decades after the Velvet Revolution, which would reinstitute a democratic government and eventually split the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the film is an utter purge against its former ideology. Its mere existence shows that communism’s impact still resonates among those who lived through the anxious and paranoid period.
Director Jan Hrebejk uses a Bratislavan high school to explore abuse of power and the effects of group complacency endemic to the time. The film centers around “comrade” Drazdechová, a teacher who uses her connections to the communist party to blackmail students and their parents. This begins at roll call, when she asks students to report their parent’s jobs, allowing Drazdechová to glean whether a student’s parents pose a potential threat to the party, but also sets up ways she can garner favors.
Even Drazdechová’s initially small requests become consequential for the families who refuse to carry them out, a natural point of tension since many of the parents are already apprehensive about helping someone who is part of the repressive regime. Still, the parents remain powerless, mostly willing to comply so that their children receive passing marks and their family escapes further scrutiny.
Sure enough, when one of the parents, an airport accountant, refuses to smuggle cakes to Russia for the teacher’s sister, his daughter’s grades suffer. His refusal sets much more dire consequences into motion when the daughter becomes overwhelmed and takes drastic action. Horrified, her parents organize a meeting where every parent can air their grievances or choose to remain silent. A petition to fire the teacher is circulated, but inscribing one’s signature would incriminate those individuals. Of course, without enough signatures, Drazdechová will surely continue her methods. Hrebejk’s school represents many economic strata, but Drazdechová’s opposers tend to be the least affluent, those that despite supposedly equal conditions, bore the brunt of the political system.
The meeting serves as the film’s spine, if you will, a referent as the story evolves. Here, communism’s effects are laid bare. Most of the parents are afraid to speak up, and some even defend the teacher as a good person, a sober portrayal of cognitive dissonance. The Teacher is a modified version of the prisoner’s dilemma: unless everyone acts unilaterally, the individual risks getting punished. There will be strength in the group once a leader emerges, but few want to take the risk. The period’s surveillance state is echoed, where parents are somehow aware of each other’s past transgressions. While the school is small, it’s a stretch to assume the parents are that intimate with each other, hinting at the invisible socialist network behind the scenes.
Zuzana Mauréry as the teacher gives an understated performance, playing the role with a cheerfully saccharine detachment, which is sometimes truly terrifying. Throughout the film, she continues to bring up her deceased husband who served the communist cause, and one wonders if she has become a sympathizer as a way to deal with his loss. She believes she’s helpless without him, and her “requests” within this context are really veiled threats.
Other moments show her full communist sentiment. She accuses a student’s mother of being a traitor because she chose to leave the country for more economically solvent shores. At another point, an unseen student interjects Drazdechová’s heavily propagandistic story by shouting words in German, deflating its impact. Not knowing who shouted, Drazdechová accuses a student who is wearing a symbolic CSSR jacket, assuming that it must have been him. This is lopsided logic that provides another window into the bizarre era.
What The Teacher accomplishes so successfully is how a person under such circumstances can control people that are nevertheless outside of her area of authority. The adults are just as afraid of the teacher and the certain punishment that would follow any digression as the students are. The film is a harrowing tale of a time that people like myself have never known, and that others, like my parents, who fled the country after the country’s 1968 Russian occupation, would rather forget.