Shot in Bracoslovia and set in 1983 when Czechoslovakia was under communist rule, “Ucitelka” or “Teacher” is a moving satire on political subversion and its effects on education and family. Supposedly based on a real teacher, who curried domestic favors from children and their parents for grades and comfort from public humiliation, the film centers on Comrade Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Maurery).
Screenwriter Pete Jarchovsky and Director Jan Hrebejk build Maria’s character from a petty,silver-shod despot to someone capable of precipitating teen suicide and job loss. At the front of the room with her notebook in hand, Maria demands that her students introduce themselves by citing their parents’ line of work. We see her record an array of professions: mason, taxi-driver, accountant, judge, greengrocer, nurse, car mechanic,lab assistant, beautician etc…Favors for herself will be gleaned from this list. She gives a heads-up to students whose parents cut her hair, fix her broken lamp and washing machine, smuggle a cake to her sister in Russia. Trivial as this manipulation may seem, Marie’s manipulation expands to the “romantic”,as she uses her access to information to ferret out marital break-ups.
There are complaints, and Maria’s colleagues would like to see her go. Much of the film takes place in meetings where parents and lead teachers try to come to a consensus. Credible witnesses are needed to prove blackmail. Parents of students who are doing well academically are leery of rocking the boat. Maria is also the Chair of the Communist Party at the school. We know how retribution works. A new student’s astrophysicist father has been reduced to cleaning windows. Maria plays one parent against another, humiliates students publicly,and tells only the favored what will be tested.
One lovely dance student is mocked after Marie lies that she has the lowest IQ in the school. ”Idiots go last” yelled in the cafe by a bullying table of boys send Dana to breathe in gas fumes from her family’s oven.
Child abuse and lack of loyalty for authority figures are polarized in the many parent meetings. A student is called a common brute: the teacher is called a bitch. When the lead teacher intervenes and says, “This is a school,please!”,one of the parents yells out my favorite line: ”Well, it feels like a business!”
Piano music moves the narrative forward. What a movie mate of mine calls “Communist Marameko” covers the private dwellings’s walls in mostly brown, geometric wallpaper. Maria appears at new student Karol’s home with a cake and borscht to entice his divorced father into meeting her needs. Maria attempts intimacy by telling intimate details like her past miscarriage and crying for sympathy. She then offers him a janitorial job at the school.
Young Karol is much dismayed by his hated teacher’s visit. Their phone has been tapped by the Party, and when the Karol in an act of prank/revenge calls Maria to shoot a starter pistol into the receiver, the wire-tapper wets his pants. Maria questions if the caller is Václav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic in 1993.
The next frame we see is Marie at the front of yet another class doing her thing for herself, for she knows how to stay connected. The irony is supreme, especially since she will be teaching ethics and religion, along with English.
“Teacher” works like an allegory. A corrupt system must be monitored and balanced. The whole of society must be taken into account, not just one individual’s beneficial gain. A society, a school system, or any public institution that votes only for their own policy benefits harms egalitarian mores. Marie changed with the tides politically to only remain the same self-serving autocrat. Base human nature deserves to be understood as base and laughed at may be the message here.