In The Teacher’s opening scene, Mária Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry), a teacher in 1980s Slovakia, makes her students stand up on the first day of school and state what their parents do for a living. Mária, who’s feared for having high-level communist party connections, gets students and parents to do her favors, such as cleaning her flat, fixing her washing machine, and sending cake to her sister in Moscow. If they refuse to help her, she retaliates by giving bad grades or humiliating students in front of their classmates. There are thus no limits to pleasing Mária in a world where subjection to tainted power is the most pervasive, and most perverse, of survival mechanisms, locking everymen into place by promising them a social mobility that’s never to materialize. Especially not if the adults’ brushes with heroic ethics—standing up for what is right—are as hesitant as they are short-lived.
In director Jan Hrebejk’s film, there’s no way out of corruption because that’s the lingua franca of any and all institutions, metastasizing dishonesty and fraud into domestic spaces and disarming men, women, and children from any possibility of leading a principled life. Here, the only way to escape this exploitation is through suicide, which, as it turns out, works to further reinforce the static subjugation of those left behind.
The Teacher is structured around flashbacks to the inappropriate encounters inside Mária’s classroom and a present-day meeting with the school principal and parents after a student’s suicide attempt, at which point the parents must decide whether to sign a petition to get Mária removed from her post. The fact that the parents sit in the desks of their children’s very own classroom in order to decide whether to risk honesty or to get on the right side of the communist party is quite telling: In a system run by corrupted figures, everyone is either a child or a master. As the web of corruption stems out of Mária, contaminating everything, the drama penetrates even the parental bed, as sex becomes a bargaining chip to get husbands to agree to their wives’ willingness to go along with the teacher’s corrupted ways.
In fleeting moments when The Teacher is atmospheric and quiet, it’s possible to recognize a Tarkovskian layer of social despair in its web of corruption joining the child and the adult, the bedroom and the nation, in a constrictor knot of sorts. There’s also a vague semblance of Béla Tarr’s Damnation and Almanac of Fall in the way every poetic batting of the eye seems drenched in political allegory. Like a cinematic pentimento, flashes of a film that could have been—less prolixity, more poesis—pop up specifically when Hrebejk turns his attention to the intimacy of the parents in their bedroom fighting over whether or not to take part in the corruption, vacillating between taking a stand and bowing down to the state’s phallic whip and its representatives. In these fragments, the soberness of the film and its overtly tight script give way to a political lesson that isn’t taught, but simply witnessed.