“The Teacher” is a foray into Slovak-language filmmaking by the industrious Czech director Jan Hrebejk, and for the occasion, he and his regular screenwriter, Petr Jarchovsky, have chosen a premise that sets up a dark satire about governance and human nature.
Set in Bratislava in 1983, when Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule, the movie centers on a new teacher, Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Maurery), who, upon meeting her students, asks for their parents’ lines of work.
Using the children’s grades as leverage, Maria plans to blackmail the parents into favors. These range from the menial (fixing her washing machine) to the potentially ruinous (smuggling a cake to Moscow by plane, which could cost a father who works at the airport his job). Ms. Maurery has great fun with the character, a tricky part because Maria nearly always maintains a kindhearted veneer, even at her most venal. It’s clear she has no regard for her class’s well-being or education.
While somewhat on the nose as allegory, the movie deftly illustrates that a culture of collaboration — whether in Bratislava in the 1980s or, indeed, any political or workplace context — requires active participation, even if subconscious. When Maria backs down on the cake-smuggling request, Marek (Csongor Kassai), the airport accountant, is so relieved that he offers to drive her to her country cottage, seemingly oblivious that he’s being pressed into a different kind of service.
Most of what we see of Maria comes in flashbacks during a parents’ conference the school’s head teacher (Ina Gogalova) has convened, risking her own job because Maria is the chair of the Communist Party at the school. But if enough parents sign a formal complaint, they may be able to oust her.