Review: ‘The Teachers’ Lounge'(2023), starring Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch, Eva Löbau, Michael Klammer, Rafael Stachowiak, Sarah Bauerett, Kathrin Wehlisch and Anne-Kathrin Gummich

December 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Leonie Benesch in “The Teachers’ Lounge” (Photo by Judith Kaufmann/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Teachers’ Lounge” (2023)

Directed by Ilker Çatak

German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Germany, the dramatic film “The Teachers’ Lounge” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and people of Arabic heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: At a middle school that is experiencing mysterious thefts, a teacher gets caught up in a scandal that is related to the thefts. 

Culture Audience: “The Teachers’ Lounge” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted psychological thrillers about how people deal with ethical issues.

Leo Stettnisch in “The Teachers’ Lounge” (Photo by Judith Kaufmann/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Teachers’ Lounge” is like a cauldron that effectively stirs up suspense and suspicion in this tale of a school thrown into chaos over theft accusations. Some viewers might not like how the movie ends, but the story in the film is riveting. The movie is best enjoyed by people who don’t mind film with conclusions that are open to interpretation.

Directed by Ilker Çatak (who co-wrote “The Teachers’ Lounge” screenplay with Johannes Duncker), “The Teachers’ Lounge” takes place in an unnamed city in Germany. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. “The Teachers’ Lounge” was also selected as German’s official entry in the Best International Feature Film category for the 2024 Academy Awards.

The central character in “The Teachers’ Lounge” is Carla Nowak (played by Leonie Benesch), a mathematics and physical education teacher at an unnamed middle school, where she teaches seventh graders. Carla is enthusiastic about her job, and she cares about her students. Her favorite student is Oskar Kuhn (played by Leonard Stettnisch), who has math skills that are far superior to everyone else in the Carla’s classroom. However, Oskar is socially awkward loner who is sometimes bullied by other students.

There has been increasing tension at the school, which has been experiencing thefts of personal items and cash. Students and school employees are victims of the thefts, which do not have a clear pattern of what will be taken or when. The school’s ongoing investigation has not resulted in any suspects. Observant viewers will notice at the beginning of the movie, the school has made it an internal investigation and haven’t filed any police reports.

An early scene in the movie shows two senior-level teachers named Milosz Dudek (played by Rafael Stachowiak) and Thomas Liebenwerda (played by Michael Klammer) meeting with two student representatives of the seventh-grade class: Lukas (played by Oscar Zickur) and Jenny (played by Antonia Küpper), who are given a list of students. Lukas and Jenny are then pressured by Milosz and Thomas to name any students on the list who are most likely to be suspects. Lukas and Jenny then reluctantly comply with this request.

It leads to Thomas and Milosz barging into Carla’s classroom unannounced to order the girls out of the classroom and then searching the wallets of the boys in the classroom. A student named Ali Yilmaz (played by Can Rodenbostel) is found to have a large amount of cash in his wallet. He is then taken out of the classroom and interrogated. Ali vehemently denies that the money was stolen and denies that he had anything to do with the thefts at the school.

The school summons Ali’s parents (played by Özgür Karadeniz and Uygar Tamer) for a meeting that includes Ali and school principal Dr. Bettina Böhm (played by Anne-Kathrin Gummich), who tries to remain nuetral. Ali’s mother demands to know why Ali was singled out as the most “suspicious” student. Bettina says that it’s because Ali had an unusually large amount of cash in his wallet that day.

Ali’s parents explain that they gave him the cash so that Ali could buy a birthday present for his cousin. There are racial and ethnic undertones to this conversation, because Ali’s parents (who are immigrants from an unnamed Arabic country) seem to be wondering if Ali was really singled out because he’s one of the few non-white students in the school’s seventh-grade class. Ali’s parents say that they are offended by the false accusation.

With no proof that he committed any theft, Ali is let go and is not punished. But the gossip about Ali being interrogated spreads throughout the school, and it makes some people permanently suspicious of Ali. Carla thinks that Ali was unfairly targeted and isn’t afraid to say so when she talks about it to other faculty members in the teachers’ lounge.

Carla is outraged at the way the investigation is being handled and thinks that it was inappropriate for Thomas and Milosz to interrupt her class to search students’ wallets. She also thinks that people should be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Two of the other teacher colleagues at the school include Vanessa König (played by Sarah Bauerett) and Lore Semnik (played by Kathrin Wehlisch), whose personalities aren’t very memorable.

Thomas is defiant and unapologetic. He says that the thefts have been going on for too long and something needs to be done about this crime spree. Thomas also says that Ali is in danger of flunking, as if Ali’s academic grades are somehow related to the thefts. Milosz is remorseful though, and he tells Carla that he’s sorry about how he and Thomas handled the investigation. Carla accepts the apology.

Not long after this heated conversation, Carla notices a female teacher casually steal some coins from a piggy bank in the lounge. Carla doesn’t say anything to anyone about this theft that she witnessed. This scene is supposed to make viewers wonder if a teacher, not a student, could be a culprit committing the thefts.

Carla then makes a fateful decision that changes the course of the story: She deliberately sets a video surveillance trap. Carla leaves her coat and laptop computer in the teachers’ lounge. Inside one of the coat pockets is a wallet with cash in it. The laptop computer is open, with the camera operating.

What happens next has some twists and turns. It’s enough to say that Carla’s attempt to do her own investigation ends up backfiring on her. She becomes the center of a scandal that also involves a teacher colleague named Friederike Kuhn (played by Eva Löbau), who is Oskar’s emotionally high-strung mother.

Benesch gives a compelling performance as Carla, who finds out how paranoia and mistrust can cut both ways. Nothing about Carla’s personal life is revealed in the movie, which gives viewers the impression that Carla’s life revolves around her job, thereby making the stakes even higher for her. Stettnisch also gives a very good performance as Felix, who becomes increasingly troubled as events unfold.

“The Teachers’ Lounge” is a gripping story that embodies the old adage: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It’s a movie that is steeped in realism, until the movie’s last few minutes, which take on a dream-like tone that might be divisive to viewers. This is not a movie where all questions will be answered, but it’s an above-average cinematic portrait about how quickly and how often judgments are made based on perceptions instead of facts.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Teachers’ Lounge” in select U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2023.

Review: ‘John Wick: Chapter 4,’ starring Keanu Reeves

March 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Keanu Reeves in “John Wick: Chapter 4” (Photo by Murray Close/Lionsgate)

“John Wick: Chapter 4”

Directed by Chad Stahelski

Some language in French, Japanese, German and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, France, Japan and Germany, the action film “John Wick: Chapter 4” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Notorious mercenary John Wick fights several opponents in various countries, in order to be released from his servitude punishment from the High Table, a council of 12 crime lords who oversee the underworld’s most powerful criminal groups. 

Culture Audience: “John Wick: Chapter 4” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “John Wick” franchise, star Keanu Reeves, and action-packed movies that can get very violent.

Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård and Marko Zaror in “John Wick: Chapter 4” (Photo by Murray Close/Lionsgate)

“John Wick: Chapter 4” is the most stunning and stylish-looking of the “John Wick” movies. Elaborate fight scenes are the movie’s biggest assets, but there’s also plenty of suspense, well-placed comedy and a meaningful story of humanity at the heart of this ultra-violent movie. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is an ending chapter of this franchise, but an end-credits scene in the movie hints that the saga will continue in another storyline.

Directed by Chad Stahelski, “John Wick: Chapter 4” was written by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. It’s an epic movie (with a total running time of 169 minutes) that is filled with adrenalin-pumping action that is never boring but can be overwhelming or offensive for people who have a low tolerance for violence in movies. At this point, most people who want to see a “John Wick” movie already that “John Wick” movies have a lot murders and mayhem. Everyone else should be prepared for ths onslaught.

It’s not necessary to see the previous “John Wick” movies, but it helps give better context to some of the relationships in the movie. The plot of “John Wick: Chapter 4” is fairly simple: Notorious mercenary John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) fights several opponents in various countries, in order to be released from his servitude punishment from the High Table, a council of 12 crime lords who oversee the underworld’s most powerful criminal groups. The current leader of the table is a ruthless sadist named Marquis (played by Bill Skarsgård), who is based in Paris. Even among these criminals, there are rules and codes of conduct that must be followed.

John’s quest leads him from his native United States to various other countries, including Japan, France and Germany. Some of his allies can turn into enemies, while some of his enemies can turn into allies. The characters he encounters include Winston (played Ian McShane), owner of the Continental Hotel in New York City; Continental Hotel concierge Charon (played by Lance Reddick, who died on March 17, 2023, one week before the release date of “John Wick: Chapter 4”); and Bowery King (played by Laurence Fishburne), leader of the Soup Kitchen, a New York City-based underworld intelligence network that is disguised as a homeless shelter.

In “John Wick: Chapter 4,” John has two hit men who have been hired to kill him: blind assassin Caine (played by Donnie Yen) and bounty hunter Tracker (played by Shamier Anderson), who is accompanied by his loyal German Shepherd. While in Japan, John interacts with Shimazu (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), the manager of the Continental Hotel in Osaka, as well as Shimazu’s daughter Akira (played by Rina Sawayama), who is a high-ranking manager at the hotel. Also in the movie are a Russian mafia princess named Katia (played by Natalia Tena); Chidi (played by Marko Zaror), who is Marquis’ second-in-command henchman; and Harbinger (played by Clancy Brown), who is a high-ranking member of the High Table.

Visually, “John Wick: Chapter 4” is the most vibrant of the “John Wick” movies. Dan Laustsen’s exquisite cinematography has gorgeously rich hues and eye-popping camera angles. Some critics might argue that this movie makes violence took glamorous, but there’s no denying that “John Wick: Chapter 4” is an achievement in visual arts for action films. And let’s be clear: The movie has no ambiguity in rooting for who the “good” characters are.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” takes on many qualities of a comic book come to life, such as the way that word fonts look on screen, how the action scenes are choreographed, and the manner in which some of the villains are portrayed. (And to its detriment, “John Wick: Chapter 4” has very simplistic dialogue, similar to a comic book.) Scott Adkins plays a German crime boss named Killa (the leader of the High Table’s German operations), who is a character that looks like he was inspired by the Kingpin villain in Marvel Comics. Killa is a massive thug who wears a business suit and has gold-plated front teeth. You can imagine how those gold teeth will be used as comic relief in one of the fight scenes.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” certainly has some very cartoonish violence. However, the violence gets much more realistic in the last third of the movie. There’s an unusual and somewhat comedic action sequence involving a long flight of stairs that is sure to be one of the most memorable aspects of “John Wick: Chapter 4.” And the last 15 minutes of the movie just might make some viewers cry. “John Wick: Chapter 4” goes beyond what typical action movies do by not just offering unique fight scenes but also stirring up complex emotions for the main characters in ways that can be unexpected.

Lionsgate will release “John Wick: Chapter 4” in U.S. cinemas on March 24, 2023.

Review: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (2022), starring Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, Edin Hasanovic, Daniel Brühl and Devid Striesow

March 12, 2023

by Carla Hay

Felix Kammermer in “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Photo by Reiner Bajo/Netflix)

“All Quiet on the Western Front” (2022)

Directed by Edward Berger

German and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Germany and France, from 1917 to 1918, the World War I dramatic film “All Quiet on the Western Front” (based on the novel of the same name) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A teenager loses his innocence after he becomes a soldier in the German Army during World War I, while a ruthless general and a liberal politician have different ideas about how Germany should handle the war. 

Culture Audience: “All Quiet on the Western Front” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of realistic war movies and Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel of the same name.

Daniel Brühl (pictured at far right) in “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Photo by Reiner Bajo/Netflix)

Told from a German perspective, this version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is the most brutal and harrowing in showing the horrors of World War I. The movie has well-crafted technical assets, but the personalities of the characters are underdeveloped. The main protagonist is a teenage German soldier. The actor portraying this character has less than 15 minutes of dialogue in this 147-minute movie.

Directed by Edward Berger, the 2022 version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” is based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel of the same name. Berger co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell. It’s the third movie version of the novel, following the 1930 version (directed by Lewis Milestone) and the 1979 TV-movie version (directed by by Delbert Mann).

The first two movie adaptations of “All Quiet on the Western Front” were American-made and starred American actors portraying Europeans. The 2022 version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” (which was filmed in the Czech Republic) is a German production and has German actors in the majority of the starring roles. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

In the 2022 version “All Quiet at the Western Front” (which takes place in Germany and France from 1917 to 1918), viewers see the transformation of teenage German soldier Paul Bäumer (played by Felix Kammerer) from being a naïve recruit who’s eager to participate in the war to an emotionally devastated war veteran who has been worn down by all the death and destruction around him. Meanwhile, the movie shows how two very different government officials have contrasting views on Germany’s actions during this war. One is a liberal politician who wants to negotiate to end the war, while the other is a ruthless general who wants Germany to win the war at any cost.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” begins in early 1917, by showing a young German soldier named Heinrich Gerber (played by Jakob Schmidt) fighting on a battlefield. The movie does a freeze-frame, right when he’s about to attack a French soldier. What happened?

Viewers then see that Heinrich has died, because his body is dumped in a truck that is transporting the corpses of other German military men. The movie then shows that Henrich’s former military uniform has been sent for repairs to a factory in Germany. His name tag is still on the uniform.

In the spring of 1917, quiet and amiable 17-year-old Paul is joyously celebrating his graduation from an all-boys high school at a ceremony attended by by fellow classmates. The school’s headmaster gives the graduates a patriotic pep talk about Germany’s involvement in World War I. Whether or not Paul was thinking about joining the German Army before this pep talk, Paul enlists in the army soon after his graduation.

When he gets his military uniform, Paul notices right away that it has the name tag Heinrich Gerber. He tells the person who gave the uniform to Paul that there must be a mistake, because he was given someone else’s uniform. The uniform is taken away, and Paul is given another uniform. Paul is given an explanation that the uniform that Paul was given by mistake was probably discarded by the previous owner because the uniform was too small.

Of course, viewers (but not Paul) know that the Henrich is dead. And the fact that the German Army is recycling a dead man’s uniform is a symbol of how impersonal and “assembly line” a war can be, in terms of how thousands or millions of soldiers on the front line are treated. Paul is about to find out the hard way that he’s just another number in this vicious war. The movie also shows this “assembly line” symbolism when Paul is assigned the task of collecting military identification tags from dead bodies on battlefields.

Paul and his troop are eventually sent to France, which is occupied by Germany at this time. The expected horrific battle scenes ensue, with graphic depictions of killings and other deaths during combat. But amid the madness and mayhem, Paul bonds with some of his fellow soldiers. The movie’s brightest and most endearing moments come from scenes showing these friendships.

One of Paul’s army buddies is Albert Kropp (played by Aaron Hilmer), who is about the same age as Paul and who becomes Paul’s best friend in this war. Albert, who sees himself as somewhat of a charming ladies’ man, often talks about how he can’t wait for the war to end so he can go back to being around women. As a new recruit, Albert is terrified and very nervous, compared to Paul, who starts off being very enthusiastic and confident about serving his country in this war. But that confidence is then destroyed by several traumatic experiences.

Four other men from Paul’s troop become part of a tight-knit circle of close acquaintances, including Paul. Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (played by Albrecht Schuch), who is in his 30s, likes to portray himself as a cocky “alpha male” type. However, there’s a very poignant scene where Kat (who cannot read) asks Paul to read a letter from Kat’s wife. The letter reveals that Kat’s somewhat arrogant demeanor actually masks a lot of personal pain.

Two of Paul’s classmates from high school are also part of the troop: Franz Müller (played by Moritz Klaus) and Ludwig Behm (played by Adrian Grünewald). Ludwig doesn’t hesitate to show how afraid he is about being in combat. While hiding out with other troop members in a bunker, Ludwig cries out for his mother. He gets some insults from a few of the soldiers, who think Ludwig is being wimpy, but Paul can understand this fear because he feels it too.

Tjaden Stackfleet (played by Edin Hasanovic), who is in his late 20s or early 30s, is a military police officer who dreams of being promoted to the position of corporal. Kat scoffs at Tjaden by saying, “You’ll never be a corporal.” Tjaden (who is deeply insecure) takes this comment as a personal insult but attempts to brush it off, so as not to let it show how much this comment hurt his feelings.

Through it all, Paul tries to hold on to his humanity when the harsh realities of war fighting force Paul and other people in combat to do some very inhumane things. Just like almost every movie that has a lot of war combat scenes, the soldiers face moral dilemmas and have to make split-second decisions that could mean life or death. And for all-male troops, there are machismo issues about who can look the toughest and the bravest.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is not subtle at all in contrasting the filthy and dangerous living conditions of the soldiers on the front lines of combat and comparing all of it to the pampered and safe living conditions of the leaders who cause these wars. The movie cuts back and forth betwen these contrasts in several scenes. It’s a way to put an emphasis on who really benefits financially from war, which can be a profitable business for some people.

Libeal politician Matthias Erzberger (played by Daniel Brühl) wants to end the war by having Germany peacefully negotiate with France. He meets with France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch (played by Thibault de Montalembert), who offers a deal that is non-negotiable, with Germany given a deadline of 72 hours to respond to the deal. Erzberger is put in a tough situation: He doesn’t want to give in to these demands too easily, because he knows he might be branded as a traitor to Germany. France’s Generalmajor Maxime Weygand (played by Gabriel Dufay) also plays a role in these tense German-French war discussions.

Being open to negotiating a truce is in direct contrast to what’s desired by General Friedrich (played by Devid Striesow), who is usually shown dining in mansions that are far removed from the war. General Friedrich wants to use the war for his own personal gain, so that he can achieve military glory and all the financial rewards and fame that come with it. Needless to say, General Friedrich is fanatical about Germany winning the war, no matter what the human cost of Germans who die.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” has top-notch production design, cinematography, original score music and sound editing/sound mixing. Where the movie isn’t as stellar is in some of the film editing (which makes the story look a little choppy and abrupt in some scene transitions) and in the screenplay, which has dialogue that tends to be over-simplistic. The screenplay makes many of the movie’s principal characters a little too vague or stereotypical.

Most of the perspective of “All Quiet on the Western Front” comes from Paul, but viewers don’t really get to know a lot of basic things about him during this lengthy film. For example, the movie never shows or tells who Paul’s family is, or what Paul wants to do with his life after the war. And because he doesn’t talk much in this movie, the Paul character could have easily been no more complex than a character in a video game.

However, thanks to the admirable talent of Kammerer in the role of Paul, this character becomes more than just a generic soldier. Kammerer (who has a background in theater/stage acting) makes his feature-film debut in “All Quiet on the Western Front.” He is very effective at showing Paul’s feelings through his eyes, facial expressions and body language.

Paul is the heart and soul of the movie, but it’s a heart and soul that the filmmakers have shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. Even with some things about Paul remaining enigmatic, there’s no mystery over how emotionally shattered Paul becomes during the course of this story. By the end of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” viewers will be emotionally affected too, no matter what people think about war.

Netflix released “All Quiet on the Western Front” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022. The movie premiered on Netflix on October 28, 2022.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘A Regular Woman’

May 2, 2019

by Carla Hay

Almila Bagriacik (pictured at left) in “A Regular Woman” (Photo courtesy of VincentTV)

“A Regular Woman” (“Nur Eine Frau”)

Directed by Sherry Hormann

German and Turkish with subtitles

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

So-called “honor killings” are part of an extremely conservative Muslim culture that teaches that it’s acceptable to murder a family member who brings shame upon the family. This type of killing is usually committed by a male against a female, and it usually has to do with the female’s sexuality. The German film “A Regular Woman” is the dramatic, scripted version of the real-life “honor killing” of 23-year-old Hatun “Aynur” Sürücü, a Turkish-Kurdish woman who was murdered by one of her brothers in 2005 in Berlin.

In the movie, she’s played by Almila Bagriacik as a woman who’s truly a victim of her circumstances. At 16, Aynur was forced into a marriage to a cousin who physically and emotionally abused her. She has a son named Can with her husband, but when Aynur can no longer take the abuse, she leaves her husband and flees with Can to Germany, where they start a new life.

It’s revealed in the beginning of the film that Aynur is a murder victim. The crime scene is shown with her dead body covered, and Aynur (who’s supposed to be speaking as a dead person in another dimension) narrates the film in voiceovers and tells the audience that one of her brothers murdered her. The rest of the movie is a series of flashbacks showing the events leading up to the murder and its aftermath.

Even though Aynur begins her new life in Berlin, she can’t really escape from her large, meddling family. Three of her brothers—Nuri (played by Rauand Taleb), Tarik (played by Aram Arami) and Sinan (played by Mehmet Atesci)—are especially offended that Aynur has rejected a traditional life as a subservient Muslim wife, and they keep tabs on what she’s been doing in Berlin. When the brothers see that Aynur has stopped wearing a hijab and has begun wearing Western clothes such as jeans and T-shirts, they feel scandalized. Youngest brother Nuri is the one who is the angriest with Aynur, especially when she begins dating a German man named Tim (played by Jacob Matschenz). Aynur and Tim end up living together, and it isn’t long before Aynur’s brothers start harassing him.

Aynur has a slightly better relationship with her brother Aram (played by Armin Wahedi Yeganeh), whom she trusts the most, and sister Shirin (played by Merve Askoy), but all of her siblings are still influenced by their extreme religious beliefs, and they have varying levels of disapproval of Aynur’s new lifestyle. Aynur has a love/hate relationship with her family. Although she knows that they think she’s an immoral harlot, she can’t quite cut herself off from them. A part of her knows they will never approve of her new life, but a part of her is in denial and thinks that they might eventually accept it.

Meanwhile, Aynur has jumped from one male-dominated environment into another. She enrolls in school to become an electrician, and she’s the only female in her class. She eventually decides to move from Berlin to Freiburg, shortly after she turns 23. Because “A Regular Woman” reveals in the beginning of the film that Aynur is going to be murdered by one of her brothers, the movie sacrifices a lot of suspense that could have been experienced by people who don’t know what happened in real life. (Her murder was big news in Germany, but not well-known in many other countries.) Therefore, the first and second acts of the film are basically a countdown to the heinous crime.

What the movie doesn’t reveal until the third act is what happened to the murderer, who else knew about the crime before it happened, and who ended up being punished for it. “A Regular Woman” director Sherry Hormann does a capable job of telling Aynur’s story, while actress Bagriacik does a believable and sympathetic portrayal of a young woman trying to find her identity in the midst of this family turmoil.

This movie is not a judgment against the Muslim religion but an unflinching critique of anyone who devalues women’s lives or treats women as always inferior to men. Unfortunately, there are so many movies and TV shows being made about women who are murdered, that “A Regular Woman” might get lost in this over-saturation. What’s even more tragic is that these stories are all too often based on what happened in real life.

UPDATE: Corinth Films will release “A Regular Woman” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 26, 2020.

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