When Maria Draždechová (Zuzana Mauréry) enters her new classroom, she invites her new students to a round of introductions – as one would. Yet Draždechová isn’t so much interested in the children as in what their parents do: the ‘poor widow’ of a Russian officer, Draždechová gradually coerces the parents into helping her with errands from the mundane – doing her shopping – to the illegal, like smuggling cake to her sister in Moscow. The reward is simple, consisting of casually dropped comments about what their offspring should be studying for their exams. And who’s to bear the brunt if the parents don’t comply? The children, of course, who then struggle to pass Draždechová’s classes no matter how hard they try.
Directed by Jan Hřebejk, who also shot the popular 1999 film Cosy Dens about teenagers and their families during the unfolding and collapse of the Prague Spring, The Teacher is the work of one of Czechia’s most successful contemporary directors – and Zuzana Mauréry, who plays Draždechová, won the award for best actress at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 2016.
Set in a school in the outskirts of Bratislava in the early 1980s, The Teacher follows the struggles of parents and children no longer wanting to participate in Draždechová’s system, which so accurately embodies the normalization era of post 1968 Czechoslovakia till the fall of communism in 1989. The rules of the system were deceptively simple: keep your head down and you’ll reap the benefits as a collaborator. Complain or act against the regime and your life will be downgraded. Keeping your integrity costs you your job, your comfortable lifestyle, your children’s future.
Rather than showing the communist regime as a big, bad foreign force, The Teacher – in the tradition of Czech film making – focuses on the little people. While Draždechová has connections to Moscow and is the communist party head in the school, she’s also a lonely widow who, throughout the film, straddles the conflicting tasks of helping herself and supporting the party. As the role of women in the film are not very complex, Draždechová wants nothing more than to find a man – preferably with a child. She has her eyes set on Mr. Littmann, an astrophysicist who has fallen into disgrace following his wife’s emigration. Where all the other parents have to work for the teacher, Mr. Littmann is wooed with borscht, cake, and the enticing promise that he could be rehabilitated as long as he files for divorce. Littmann’s son is the teacher’s golden child, of course – in contrast to some of his other classmates, whose parents refuse to collaborate (one girl even attempting to take her own life after Draždechová repeatedly fails her for made-up reasons and calls her stupid). The suicide attempt forces the head teacher into action: she invites the parents to a meeting, offering to put an official complaint forward should there be enough signatures. Yet the parents are divided: some happily support Draždechová, as long as their children bring home good marks…
What may sound like a simple plot’s complicated by the anachronistic scenes the film’s pieced together with. Only slowly do we learn who knows what, which side people stand on, and, eventually, whether there’s enough support to remove the teacher. On the journey, we learn about parents who willingly suffer to forge a better life for their children, self-confident kids who endanger their parents’ position in society, and an oppressive system of favouritism, which contributed to the fall of communism and survived in the throes of unbridled 90s capitalism. Hřebejk sketches this system in a carefully constructed pastiche, enlivened by dry humour, a great soundtrack and wonderfully nostalgic images (recalling Cosy Dens). While set some thirty years ago, The Teacher’s deconstruction of nepotism and corruption has great contemporary relevance, and though it isn’t a spectacular film, it’s great for keeping you thinking. Some basic knowledge of Czechoslovak history is surely helpful here – but even without it, Hřebejk’s dissection of power-structures is well worth a visit.
Jan Hřebejk’s ‘The Teacher’ (2016) screens on 18 November, as part of the 21st Made in Prague Festival 2017, organised by the Czech Centre, London.