Sep 6, 2017

The Teacher


A suspenseful, maddening exploration of the effects corruption and abuse of power have on society, this mordant, uncannily relevant fable directed by Jan Hrebejk and superbly written by Peter Jarchovsky is about a school teacher (the fantastic Zuzana Maurery) in communist Czechoslovakia and how she uses her position as head of the communist party at school to demand favors from her pupils' parents. It is a detailed and accurately observed psychological portrait of a corrupt, petty functionary with a little power and how she grows it into a cancer from which no one is immune.
You know something is not right when she arrives the first day of class and asks the children to introduce themselves and tell her what their parents do for a living. She writes all the info in a little notebook.
Soon she is getting free haircuts from a mother in exchange for letting her daughter know the answers for exams in advance, demanding that parents do illegal things for her, and generally treating the children like her own personal serfs.  It starts with little favors (smuggling cake into the Soviet Union, for instance) and ends with not so veiled threats and actual psychological harm to the children. One plump person representing a small franchise of state power is capable of fraying the fabric of society.
I couldn't help but think of Trump, who exhibits similar traits to the teacher (although she is much more adroit): both are desperately needy of universal attention, both are phonies, ruthless and completely immoral, only serving their own interests; both are cruel, petty, vindictive, needy, and pathetic. The movie demonstrates how the bad example of someone in a position of authority is enough to empower the worst in people. The teacher mercilessly mocks one of the students (whose parents won't give in to her demands) and next thing we know her classmates start bullying her, just like Trump with his alt-right groupies.
Watching this teacher whine incessantly about how hard and lonely it is to be a widow, I had a realization that sentimentality is evil. Tyrants use sentimentality to manipulate people into abdicating their integrity. All totalitarians are great sentimentalists: they destroy by humiliation and perform their phony pieties with great drama. Kitschy displays of patriotism, such as national prayer days, are examples of insidious sentiment. Just look at Trump, a sadist who whines about unfairness and demonizes those who "persecute" him, like the media.
Maurery plays the teacher with a combination of patronizing sweetness and ruthless cunning. She acts like everyone's idea of a teacher, warm, caring and inexhaustibly didactic. However, she doesn't really teach squat. Propaganda, in the form of a hilariously inappropriate bodice ripping fantasy about a soldier, is what comes out of her mouth in class.
The movie goes back and forth between the situation in the classroom to an extraordinary meeting between the parents and the director of the school (who looks like a deer caught in the headlights, scared of her own authority). That's where we see who is made of what: the collaborationists, the apologists, those who don't want to rock the boat, the privileged judge who tries to intimidate the handful of outraged parents to drop the investigation.  In the end, all parents want what's best for their children, and in the case of this communist society, having good grades means being catapulted to a better position in life (just as having a wife who defects to the West gets you demoted from scientist to window cleaner).
The movie feeds our outrage slowly but sharply, with many bitter, ironic twists and a faux happy ending. People can win small victories against corruption at great personal cost, but abuse of power is indestructible.