Think back to your worst teacher. Everyone’s had at least one terrible educator, and whether you just didn’t like the subject or felt the teacher had some sort of personal vendetta, it’s amazing how powerless a particularly nasty teacher can make you feel. It’s even worse if she’s the Chairperson of the local communist party and you live in 1980s Soviet ruled Slovakia. This is the story of Jan Hřebejk’s The Teacher, with a title character so manipulative and vindictive that it’s hard to believe it’s based on a true story.
Zuzana Mauréry plays Maria Drazdechova, a teacher who quickly determines what the parents of each of her students do for a living and asks them for various personal favours. If the parent doesn’t offer their services to her or challenges her in some way then their child starts to receive failing marks in class. If Drazdechova likes a certain parent, then she starts telling them what their child should prepare before the next day’s test. Hřebejk cleverly utilises a non-linear timeline to jump between Drazdechova bullying the children in her classroom and an emergency meeting between the parents and the school’s Head Teacher to discuss what can be done. While some of the parents are appalled by how the children are being treated, others are more than happy to help out Drazdechova if it means their kids get preferential treatment. And others are too afraid to speak up at all. The arguments between the parents quickly get heated and personal, but throughout it all Hřebejk makes it clear that while the pressure is on the parents it’s the children who will have to deal with the aftermath.
The performances all around this tense, emotional film are excellent, but it’s ultimately Zuzana Mauréry’s picture to steal. Not since Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge has there been a cinematic teacher as easy to despise – they even wear similar pink sweaters. She’s human enough to understand but too despicable to ever sympathise with, playing the victim or spouting hypocritical lessons to constantly reassert her own control over any situation. There’s also a political element to The Teacher that is underlying but ever-present; with both Drazdechova and her allies making subtle threats about how much worse things could get for anyone willing to speak out against her.
Despite these threats The Teacher is ultimately about the need to stand up against injustice and a seemingly all-powerful adversary. Hřebejk’s film can be viewed as a metaphor for fighting against tyranny, or simply an incredible real-life story, but however it’s taken it clearly has a worthwhile lesson to teach.