Rated M, 103 minutes
It's hard to be bad, at least in movies. Most of us know people who are less than good, but if you put them in a movie, they're not necessarily going to make an interesting villain. And good villains are a huge part of the attraction of movies.
What makes a villain interesting? Some people look for extremes of behaviour, like the concentration camp commandant played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List – all the colours of evil. Some look for the cartoon extremes you get in some Bond villains, although rotters like Blofeld and Rosa Klebb are less compelling than Auric Goldfinger or Maximilian Largo (the character played by Klaus Maria Brandauer in Never Say Never Again), precisely because these last two are more human. We can measure ourselves against them and come out on top, one of the secret services that movies provide. But the greatest villains, the truly shocking and scary ones, are the ones who might be living next door, unnoticed and unremarkable, the termites in our midst.
The Teacher brings us an exceptional villain of that sort, a woman whose corruption is aided by the communist system in which she thrives. What's exceptional about her is that she does not really know she's a bad person. Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Maurery) is a high school teacher in Bratislava in what was still then Czechoslovakia, in 1983. She is outwardly impressive: warm but firm with her students, practical and efficient in her teaching. Miss Jean Brodskova, you might say, a model teacher. She is also a senior member of the party. The children may not quite understand that yet, but their parents certainly do.
Greeting her new class, she asks each pupil to state the occupation of each parent, which she notes in her little black book. It's good to know how parents might benefit the school, she says, but she's soon exploiting the details for personal gain. Someone's mother is a hairdresser and Maria would like the latest style; soon the child of that hairdresser does better in tests. The opposite happens for Danka Kucerova (Tamara Fischer), the sensitive daughter of parents who refuse to play the teacher's game. Mr Kucera (Csongor Kassai) works at the airport. The teacher wants to send some cakes to her sister in Moscow, which is illegal. Surely Mr Kucera could arrange for a pilot or a stewardess to carry them? When he hesitates, Danka falls behind in tests.
The film is based on something that happened to author Petr Jarchovsky in high school in Prague during the 1970s. Madam Drazdechova has been made more attractive than she really was, the writer says, but most of the details are correct. The setting has moved to Slovakia for production reasons but it hardly matters, because the story is not simply about the abuses of Communism, though some will only see that. It could be set in a school in Broken Hill and still work, because it's about the human tendency to exploit advantage. That can happen anywhere, although part of the attraction here is to see how it happened in this place and at this time.
Director Jan Hrebejk is a veteran of comedy and the film exploits a rich vein of sardonic humour. It's still a drama, because the fear is real. When the headmistress calls parents together to discuss Madam Drazdechova's abuses, the movie becomes a Slovak version of Twelve Angry Men (and Women) – the group cleaving between those whom the system benefits, and those it has crushed, or will crush if they step out of line. This is 1983, remember, six years before the Berlin Wall opened.
The eastern bloc countries produced a lot of good directors and movies during Communism, partly because film-makers had something to oppose. The system destroyed others who might have been great, too, but after 1989, most of the infrastructure was swept away. It didn't matter what you had to say; there was no means of saying it. The Teacher rises from the ashes of that period, with enough bitterness to remind us of what people suffered in silence just a few years earlier. That makes it stronger, as well as darker and funnier – at least if you did not have to live through it.