EXCLUSIVE: Filmmaker Ilker Çatak, whose terrific film The Teachers’ Lounge is Germany’s submission for Best International Feature at the 96th Academy Awards, wants to see and make films that provoke.
But what exactly does that mean?
Well, according to Çatak, most filmmakers, including himself, can feel a bit ‘same,’ despite best intentions. “We’re all kind of left-wing and woke, none of us are racist and we have the same values,” he begins during one of several conversations we’ve held over recent months at Telluride, TIFF and over email. “Sometimes I feel like I watch films, and they’re so safe. You know where the story’s going to, and I actually want to see films that sometimes provoke and are not aligned to my perception of the world.”
“I like it when a filmmaker makes a bold decision and risks something,” adds the director, whose credits include I Was, I Am, I Will Be and Stambul Garden.
For example, he says Yorgos Lanthimos’s Golden Lion-winning Poor Things “was bold for a filmmaker to make.” I wholeheartedly agree. The same goes for Paola Sorrentino and Justine Triet’s films. I agree with that, too.
The Teachers’ Lounge, which was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics back in March for all rights in North America, Latin America and most European territories, is set in a German school. Çatak sees “school as a miniature of society.”
“You’ve got the dean, you’ve got people with power in charge, and then you’ve got the people, the students, and you’ve got a school newspaper, which is representing the press. We thought — seeing as we live in such hysterical times where everybody just wants to be right and does not listen anymore, where it’s just about cancelling the other person or ‘alternative facts’ as they get called — that we thought this might be a nice playground to experiment in.”
Rather, it’s a dangerous playground, with Carla Nowak, as a new maths and physical exercise teacher played ferociously well by German actress Leonie Benesch (The White Ribbon, The Swarm) who finds herself at the center of an incident involving money stolen on school premises.
Teachers ask the pupils to show them their wallets. It’s such an intrusive act, but Çatak explains that in reality every infraction is investigated to the nth degree in German education. “We discovered that many German schools have problems, obviously, but they also have policies of zero tolerance.”
Çatak and co-screenwriter Johannes Duncker (Dämmerung) had conducted research, most of it arranged by producing partner Ingo Fliess of Berlin’s IF Productions, then ran it by several teachers. “Education is a very sensitive topic in Germany,” says Çatak. “If you tackle it, you have to be prepared for the shitstorm, and you have to really do your research, so we talked to a lot of teachers, to psychologists who work in schools and we talked to students, and I went to schools and spent time in classes.”
He laughs as he recounts being back in class. “I sat there and I had the same feeling that I had when I was a student. I felt tired. I wanted to sleep, and I was like, ‘Why is school starting at eight in the morning? Why?”
He adds it’s “a proven fact” that students would learn more if schools would start later, but the reality is most parents need their children dropped off earlier so they can begin work at a contracted time. “School is daycare,” says Çatak.
He remembers his parents telling him never to question what a teacher said. “Nowadays, it’s the opposite. Parents and students are questioning the teachers and teachers have a way more difficult time than they used to have. That’s also because communication has gotten quicker. There were no WhatsApp groups or emails back in the day, but now it’s just any single, tiny thing becomes an issue.”
In the film, a pupil of Turkish descent is singled out as a suspect in the theft. That scene, Çatak says, was inspired by an incident he and Duncker, who have been friends since childhood, observed when they were pupils themselves.
Çatak recalls the story of two boys who were stealing, protected by the knowledge that their classmates would not want to snitch. One day, three teachers ordered Çatak, Duncker and the other children to put their wallets on a table. “So we wrote the scene, and we showed it to working teachers,” he adds. They confirmed similar issues happen “all the time” but said that you could not demand children’s possessions unless they voluntarily give them up.
He sighs as he recalls being singled out “as the Turkish kid growing up in Germany.”
“You do get racially profiled.”
As he dug deeper into life at school, Çatak realized that the film would be about children’s rights. “This is also about how you stand up to a hierarchy that puts you under pressure,” he says.
There are no victims in The Teachers’ Lounge, he adds. “Everybody has to fight and no one backs down. That was the goal of the film.”
And, whoosh! It’s like a nuclear warhead exploding.
“For me as a director, that is a very thankful thing. If you have conflict and you have friction in your scenes, that’s drama. You don’t have to do anything as a director because the actors know what to do. They have a clear goal.”
Çatak was born in Berlin to Turkish parents. For the most part, he was the only “brown kid” in his class. He realized much later in life that he would ”start compensating with certain behaviours “to fit in. “You are just trying to make it work and also be invisible, and you put extra effort in looking good, having everything ironed, so that you are not the foreigner; the odd one out.”
We all have these protective mechanisms that we’re often not aware of when we’re young, and I know exactly what Çatak’s talking about.
I was raised in Richmond, just on the outskirts of London. There was one other Black kid in my school. I used to get stopped by police all the time and just like Çatak, I would learn to dress up so smart that there would have to be a damn good reason for the cops to stop me on my street.
When Çatak was 12 his family moved to Istanbul, returning to Germany when he was 18. His father worked for the postal service and his mother worked in a bank. “We’re basically working class people. My grandparents, who were fabric workers, came to Germany in the early 1970s. They were illiterates and they learned to write and read just in Germany,” Çatak tells me.
Art was not a big thing in the family. “I’m an only child and for them the most important thing was to see me studying,” he recalls.
After high school, he studied economics at university in Berlin. He was unhappy. “I hated it, and my escape was the movie theater. I went to the movies all the time. At some point I went to the job center where you can have a free consultation in what you want to do with your life. And the guy said, “What do you like doing?”
“I said, ‘I like going to the movies.’ And he said, I should should make some. It was as easy as that,” says Çatak, his eyes brightening at the memory.
By this time his friend Duncker was shooting short films, with Çatak performing in them. “We were young and we didn’t know what we were doing,” says Çatak.
But he knew that he would have to tell his parents. “’Guys, I’m quitting my studies to become a PA,’ he told them. And my parents said, ‘What is a PA? What are you doing there?’
“Well, I was basically I’m just blocking streets and making coffee for my bosses and whatnot. They went crazy.”
Part of their anger had to do with the fact that they had paid for his education during the six years they’d spent in Istanbul. “That was a good school and you don’t send your kid to such a school if the kid doesn’t want to study later.”
His parents accused him of “throwing it all away.”
It was the first “really big fight” he’d had with his parents. “I was living in their house, but not for long. I moved out and lived on the couches of friends. My father said, ‘Okay then, just piss off and never come back.”
Çatak applied to films schools and made more short films. He was broke and didn’t know what he was doing with his life. He started selling ice-cream at a parlour in Kreuzberg, using his earnings to finance his short films.
At some point, he made one film that he feels was was a turning point,” both in his career and between father and son.
It started when Çatak returned to the family home for his mother’s birthday. The family started playing a word game and Çatak and his father quarrelled over whether Namibia was a country or a city. Çatak was correct — it’s a country — but he was heartbroken that his father hid the fact he didn’t know.
Çatak and Duncker ended up making a twenty minute film called When Namibia was a City.
His father is the film’s lead.
The director sent me links to several of his shorts and earlier features over the course of our discussions. I watched When Namibia was a City over and over. It’s not the remotest bit mean about Çatak’s father. The camera seems to love him. Knowing the background, I found watching the short tremendously moving.
The sense that art can help reconcile is so important in our fractured society.
“That film got a lot of invitations to festivals, and I would start travelling with my father to them,” Çatak says with pride.
“My father, who fiercely fought me for becoming a filmmaker, and me would be at those Q&As, and then a film critic made a list of the 10 most remarkable acting performances of that year, and there was my father, along with Robert de Niro.”
He takes a deep breath to keep the emotion at bay. “That was a turning point where he started also believing in me,” says Çatak. “He was the man who worked his life as a postman. I’d had to explain to him in the beginning what it means to be a director, but that was where everything changed and where I also thought, ‘Hey, maybe I’m not too bad at this.’ Things after that evolved, and I kept writing and making short films.”
I wondered about his parents now. Are they still with us?
“Yeah. And they are so proud,” he says with a beaming smile.
He notes how jubilant his parents were when The Teachers’ Lounge won prizes including the Lola in Gold for Best Feature Film at the German Film Awards, along with the awards for best director, actress, screenplay and editing, beating front-runner — and multi-Oscar winner — All Quiet on the Western Front for the top honor.
Germany has submitted The Teachers’ Lounge as its entry in the Academy’s Best International Feature Film category. Çatak’s father has been calling relatives in Anatolia to tell them about the film’s success. “What’s moving to me is the fact that they are moved and happy,” says Çatak.
He thinks back to something Brazil director Terry Gilliam once said about there being two kinds of films: the ones that have a message and the ones that pose a question. ”I prefer posing a question instead of a message,” says Çatak. “I like it when a film upsets me or when a film does not satisfy me, and this is what cinema is to me. It’s a space where I can put together the pieces myself; where I can interpret something.”
The Teachers’ Lounge doesn’t answer its fundamental question, which I won’t spoil here, but it considers the role of guilt. This prompts Çatak to discuss The Anatomy of a Fall, another film that explores similar thematic questions.
He’s a tremendous admirer of Justine Triet’s film because, ultimately, “it’s about how every society needs a scapegoat and how we as a society need these sacrifices in order to keep the machine running.”
But the bigger question to come out of The Teachers’ Lounge has to do with truth, a point to which Çatak nods his head in agreement. He ponders on “how everybody has their own truth, how truth becomes a matter of subjective perception and how everybody tries to make up their own truth. If truth is something that you can bend, then it becomes a matter of belief.”
And we know how dangerous so-called alternative truth has become. That’s why I feel The Teachers’ Lounge will find a receptive audience in the U.S. Çatak jokes that the student newspaper journalists in his film would have put Donald Trump under a spotlight he would not have liked.
‘Best of a generation’
Actors mine a script and extract the most telling material. That’s what Leonie Benesch does as Carla. Çatak hails her as the best of her generation. “She’s a young Isabelle Huppert,” he says. “She’s got something, like a magician. And I actually don’t want to know how the magician does this magic.”
However, he has ascertained that she combines “a mixture of between concentration and ‘laidback-ness’ in a way that I’ve never seen before. She could come into the room and be completely laid back and relaxed, and then boom, she’s concentrated and on point.”
He’d watched her performance in Michael Haneke’s 2009 Cannes prize winner The White Ribbon and wanted to work with her ever since. In the intervening years, Benesch studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, sharpening and honing her talent before landing her role in Çatak’s buzzy film.
But just as integral to The Teachers’ Lounge are the kids that populate its classrooms. They were selected after exhaustive casting sessions, many of which Çatak led.
Those who made the final mix would have interviews with him. “I would talk to them and say, ‘Okay, here are three things. First, we are a family and these are your brothers and sisters, and if any one of us doesn’t feel well, we all take care of that person. Second, I want you to have a work ethic. I want you to go to sleep early. I want you to know your lines. I want you to behave. And third, there are no extras. You aren’t an extra. We are one entity.”
He added one other point to them: “I am not your boss and you are not the kid that I talk to. We are colleagues.”
Çatak’s right to favor provocation in art. It’s fun when a movie makes you mad.