Effectively transposing “12 Angry Men” into the most intense PTA meeting of all time, Jan Hřebejk’s “The Teacher” is a sardonic, richly seriocomic morality play that uses a delicate touch to explore why communism never seems to work out in the long run. Set in Czechoslovakia circa 1983 — when the country was just beginning to peek out from behind the Iron Curtain — and loosely inspired by true events, this crowd-pleasing standout from the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival’s competition slate leverages its hyper-specific setting to convey a universal story of fear and power. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds.
Essentially Dolores Umbridge for the muggle set, Mrs. Drazděchová (Slovak actress Zuzana Mauréry) is lonely, lustful, and low-key where her Hogwarts counterpart was the living embodiment of toffee-nosed evil. A teacher at an elementary school that looks more like a concrete concentration camp, Drazděchová starts every new year by asking her young pupils to state their names and share what it is that their parents do for a living. It’s a strange question, but the unmarried, middle-aged authoritarian isn’t exactly afraid that her students might rat her out to their parents — being the highest-ranking Communist in town has its perks, and Drazděchová has no reservations about exploiting every one of them.
The film opens by cleverly intercutting her latest group interrogation with a scene in which her students’ moms and dads gather in the same classroom for an emergency meeting. The intent is clear and its effect palpable: Drazděchová has her unctuous grip on two generations of comrades, and she knows just how to play them against one another in order to get what she wants. And what she wants, more than anything, is the addictive feeling of power that comes with getting what she wants.
Her demands are often amusingly mundane: Drazděchová systematically bullies a doe-eyed student named Katka (calling her an idiot, and failing her to an extent that have serious repercussions on her future in the Party) because she wants the girl’s father, an accountant at the local airport, to help smuggle some cakes into Siberia. She blackmails one kid into picking up her groceries, and hints at terrible consequences for another if his widower father won’t reciprocate her advances. The banality of these micro-aggressions helps keep the film rooted in satire, but the script nevertheless pays careful attention to how Drazděchová’s requests weigh on her students and their parents alike, screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky pulling from memory — and inherited family lore — to finely articulate the dangers of a quid pro quo economy.
Hřebejk, the prolific Czech director behind the likes of “Divided We Fall” and “Kawasaki’s Rose,” completely jives with the script’s careful balancing act between personal drama and political subversion. He directs with an exacting playfulness that recalls the more theatrical work of Joe Wright, his camera swooping between rows of desks and piecing timelines together with precise match cuts. The visibly stylized aesthetic is just arch enough to make it feel as though the movie were entirely shot through side-eye.
But it’s “The Teacher” herself who most effectively ensures that the film maintains a steady balance between dismantling communism and skewering the timeless human qualities that make it so untenable. Mauréry is brilliant in the title role, a symbol of corruption who’s most compelling when she’s right on the brink of becoming a cartoon. It’s a careful tightrope act, but Mauréry never wavers — one moment, Drazděchová is a lonely lady who’s just trying to keep herself busy; the next, she’s the Terminator.
Drazděchová is such an indomitable force of nature that the film suffers and slows whenever she’s off-screen for more than a minute or two. The characters whose lives she destroys, while compelling, aren’t as fully realized, and the process by which the parents are galvanized into action is too scattershot to hit with the force that it should. But if “The Teacher” fails to convey the particulars of its climactic uprising, Hřebejk’s lesson plan — a needle-sharp take on the perils of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons — still touches a nerve.
“The Teacher” premiered this week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.