Cast: Zuzana Mauréry, Zuzana Konecná, Csongor Kassai
Director: Jan Hrebejk
Running Time: 103 minutes
Synopsis: From Oscar-nominated writer/director Jan Hřebejk (Divided We Fall), The Teacher is a wildly entertaining black comedy inspired by the true story of a Communist-era school teacher who manipulated her pupils and their families for unprecedented personal gain.
The early 1980s, Czechoslovakia. At the start of a new term at a suburban high school, a seemingly empathetic and kind new teacher, the middle-aged Maria Drazděchová greets her class. She asks them to introduce themselves and share what their parents do for a living, explaining that it's important to know how their parents might collectively help the group. Soon after, she gradually begins to pressure both students and parents by seeking favours – grocery collection, handyman assistance, lifts and haircuts – and connecting them with special treatment in class and, most significantly, good grades.
Before long Maria's demands grow more complex and dangerous, so when a serious incident finally draws her unscrupulous behavior to her colleagues, the principal calls a secret meeting, seeking parents to sign a petition to move 'Comrade Drazděchová' on from the school. But her high connections with the Communist Party hang above everyone in the room, and it's soon evident that standing up for what's right may be much easier said than done.
With production design and cinematography that recreates the era to wonderful effect, The Teacher delivers a timeless and universal story of opportunism, bias and human dignity. Laced with wicked humour and standout performances, this rousing morality tale employs a delicate touch to skewer not only the complications of communism, but the human characteristics that ensure it never quite works out as expected.
Release Date: November 23rd, 2017
Question: With its atmosphere, style, and themes, The Teacher seems somehow related to your earlier film, Divided We Fall. What was so interesting about the screenplay that you decided to make this film?
Jan Hřebejk: I've known the story roughly since the time when it happened, because Petr Jarchovský related it to me in the early eighties when it was still quite recent… This is simply our main topic: fear, opportunism, human dignity and things like that.
Question: This time you've moved on from an analysis of partnership to the broader themes of strength and the quality of human character. Do you think this is what people are interested in today?
Jan Hřebejk: It's what we're interested in! If we weren't, we wouldn't have made this. This film can be powerful. When we show it to random audiences, it has quite an emotional effect, they keep returning to it for days afterward. It's not primarily a political film, but it's difficult to avoid that label. We call it 'Pupendo with a story".
Question: It's a relatively small-scale story. Was that deliberate?
Jan Hřebejk: Yes, we wanted the whole thing to be as tight as possible. To make sure the stylisation is pure and natural.
Question: Were you inspired by any specific films when making this one?
Jan Hřebejk: Not really, but we won't mind at all if it reminds anyone of Entre les murs or 12 Angry Men.
Question: How important was the casting of the child actors? How did you manage to find child actors so expressive, yet so authentic?
Jan Hřebejk: That is, of course, the key with a story like this, particularly for the emotional effect. I'm indebted in particular to Ingrid Hodálová who did the casting and recommended the actors, including the children.
Question: How did you find the actress who would play the teacher?
Jan Hřebejk: The cinematographer Martin Žiaran knew it would be Zuzana Mauréry long before we actually cast her. His intuition was correct.
Question: Is it just coincidence that the boy playing Kája is the grandson of Marián Labuda, or did someone point him out to you?
Jan Hřebejk: I'm told Richard Labuda is relatively well known as a child actor. This isn't his first role. His grandfather is a legend, and his father is a key person in the Astorka theatre today. I've met them both and admire them both as actors, but I've only worked with Richard.
Question: Do you have any personal experience with similar kinds of manipulation or intimidation? Did you bring any of your own experiences into the film?
Jan Hřebejk: It wasn't just a feature of the Communist era; similar moral dilemmas, manipulations, and ambiguities are something we must all face every day. You'll find several Czechoslovak films addressing these themes – Obchod na korze / The Shop on Main Street, Kachyňa, or Svoboda's movies from the eighties. There's Najbrt's Protector and more…
Question: Did you consult any of the issues, such as bullying of pupils by teachers, with psychologists, etc.? What's the main subject of The Teacher?
Jan Hřebejk: The Teacher is not about a teacher bullying students! Today we even hear about cases where the opposite is true. Our main theme is fear as a test of character. Just like Divided We Fall wasn't about the Holocaust or Nazism, this film is not about Communism or bullying by teachers.
Question: Do you think similar stories take place in schools also today, where teachers paradoxically tend to lose respect and are often the victims of bullying by the children, or even their parents?
Jan Hřebejk: Yes, everything repeats itself and keeps coming back. All adults and most children have experienced the feeling where something that might benefit you now might also be the wrong thing to do. Or the other way around: that following your conscience or moral code may be difficult or very disadvantageous.
Question: Your story is very timeless, because it can be applied to many different environments even today. Do you personally feel that our contemporary society is more easily corrupted than it was under socialism?
Jan Hřebejk: Human nature doesn't change. Things were more dramatic back then. This makes the story even more poignant, since today many such situations are kept out of sight.
Question: You have cast actors who are relatively unknown on the film screen, which is rather refreshing. Was that deliberate?
Jan Hřebejk: The main reason for that is that we decided to shoot the film in Slovakia. Of course it was refreshing for me because I don't have these actors connected with any other roles, their social presence etc. I had only worked with Csongor Kassai before on Divided We Fall; he was still a student back then. At the start of the shooting, we agreed it would be great if we managed to do as good a job as last time.
Question: What do you think makes The Teacher stand out from your other films?
Jan Hřebejk: That it's in Slovak!
When I think of The Teacher, I see it as a carefully organised and engrossing analysis of how a society can slowly grow numb and browbeaten to the point of losing hope of effecting any change at all. It is a film about how collective lethargy can lead to tragedy. And a film about the hope contained in refusing to stand idly by, about overcoming one's own fears. This is something that I find extraordinarily topical, and if it is well filmed, it always will be!
Release Date: November 23rd, 2017