Teachers teach, but that's not all. For students they're dictators of classroom time and space, for parents they're gatekeepers who determine their child's future. Add a provocative twist to this eternal dynamic and the result is the exceptional "The Teacher."
Though made in the Slovak language, "The Teacher" is the work of the veteran Czech team of director Jan Hřebejk and writer Petr Jarchovský, who collaborated on the Oscar-nominated "Divided We Fall."
Like that film, "The Teacher" benefits not only from filmmakers who join a multifaceted understanding of human nature with a fastidious control of technique and style, but also from being set in a particular time and place.
While "Divided" took place during World War II, "Teacher" is set in the city of Bratislava in 1983, when Communism was still going strong and bucking the party and its apparatchiks was not something taken on lightly.
"The Teacher's" strength, in fact, is that it functions beautifully on parallel levels. Like the remarkable films Eastern European countries turned out regularly during the Soviet era, it marries a character-driven story with social concerns, in this case a deft parable about the kind of corrupt privileged society nominally egalitarian Socialism created.
As adroitly structured by Hřebejk and Jarchovský, "The Teacher" opens with some intricate crosscutting between two groups of people meeting at different times in the same monolithic school building.
Introduced first is Comrade Drazdechová, a teacher greeting her new middle-school class on the first day of school. Clearly an experienced educator, pleasant and professional, she starts things off, in a casual, ice-breaker sort of way, by asking each student to stand and tell her what their parents' occupations are.
One parent is a hairdresser, another an auto mechanic, a third an accountant for the state-run airline. Comrade Drazdechová nods thoughtfully at each answer and carefully writes the information down in a little notebook.
"The Teacher" cuts back and forth between this daytime scene and a nighttime sequence months later, a meeting between the school's director and the parents of those very students, worried and harried adults from a wide social strata who have nothing in common except the teacher their children share.
Some parents know what the meeting is about, others are in the dark, but everyone is aware that a) Comrade Drazdechová has not been invited to join them, and b) she's the Communist Party chairperson at the school, a powerful individual not to be crossed lightly.
As "The Teacher" sure-handedly unfolds, showing us both that gathering and earlier events, we see for ourselves why that meeting has been called.
For, as brilliantly played by Zuzana Mauréry (who took the best actress prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival), Comrade Drazdechová is gradually revealed as a shameless, devious manipulator of the system, an exploiter with a genius for taking advantage of both students and parents.
She's been writing those occupations down, as it turns out, the better to take advantage of them. It starts with simple things, like having the hairdresser do her hair for free, and gets more complex, like pressuring the airline employee to risk his job by passing an illegal package to flight personnel to deliver to her sister in Moscow.
Parents who cooperate are casually informed what information their children just might be tested on, while parents who push back find that their children are graded harshly, threatened with academic failure and mercilessly humiliated in public.
As the situation between parents, children and Comrade Drazdechová grows in complexity in one half of the film, so does the interaction between the parents at that meeting in the other. Some are riven with pain at what their children have gone through. Others ask, "What's wrong with helping each other?" and insist the whole situation is trumped up.
The filmmakers, who not surprisingly say they were partially inspired by the American classic "12 Angry Men," play this string out with great skill, right down to a pitch-perfect finale. "The Teacher" does have a lesson to impart, but it does so in a wonderfully entertaining way.
(In Slovak with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills