Director: Sönke Wortmann (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
A school in Cologne (if the car numberplates are to be believed), 2.30, Friday afternoon. Everyone’s gone home apart from a huddle of teachers in the staff room. They all adhere more or less to a given stereotype – two older teachers, who insist on enforcing petty rules and hate the kids, the sports teacher who has a much closer relationship, especially with the girls, the nerdy chemistry teacher, an ambitious one who pretends to be nice to everyone and a young student teacher.
Suddenly, there is a knocking on the door. They ignore it, but the knocking becomes more insistent. Realising that it will carry on until they answer they open the door to a parent, angry that his son has come one point to short of qualifying for his Abi (roughly the German equivalent of “A” levels). At first he’s polite enough, but when they continue to treat him with the same condescension that they show to each other (and presumably the kids), he pulls out a loaded gun.
When they tell him that they’re meeting on Monday to make a final decision on who gets to qualify, he locks them in the staff room, saying that the meeting has just been put forward. They have until 4pm to make a decision – that is, to make the decision that his son has qualified after all. Then he’ll return, and his gun is still loaded.
This has all the making of a decent play or film. Most of the story for most of the time follows the 3 unities of action, place and time. I did find it a bit strange that the 90 minutes discussion time that the teachers are given actually take up about an hour in screen time. As the father has set the time limit arbitrarily, wouldn’t it be better for him to return at 3.30 and for the plot to play out in real time, a la High Noon?
Every so often we leave the classroom to follow a bizarre subplot. At first, they are phoneless. Apparently all kids and teachers have to hand in their phones at the start of the day, after a teacher played a porn film from his phone by mistake. Then someone suddenly remembers a phone in her bag. They ring the local police station, who are at first unwilling to help, then track down the kid who owns the confiscated phone and send a SWAT team to teach him a lesson.
I had high hopes before going to see Eingeschlossene Gesellschaft, as it’s directed by Sönke Wortmann, who directed Contra, one of the best films that I saw last year. That was a sensitive film which covered the difficult subject of academic racism with intelligence and humour. This, in contrast, is more like Mrs. Braun’s Boys – with no brush stroke too large to stop it going for a cheap laugh.
There is a case to be made that you can make funny scenes from the police sending a SWAT team to carry out a grudge, or about an older woman not knowing what a MILF or fisting is. Crude humour can be funny, but the laughs have got to be earned. Otherwise you’re aiming for the Lowest Common Denominator – trying to raise cheap laughs by laughing at the weak, rather using your humour to point out structural problems (which Contra did so effectively).
This may be my biggest problems of the film. At some level, in among the jokes, it seems to be addressing a serious problem in schools (one review approvingly mentioned probably fictitious and certainly racist reports of Arab clans threatening teachers and bourgeois families). Schools are in a bit of a mess at the moment, aren’t they? And one problem may well be supercilious teachers.
At first, we expect an interplay of ideas, as although each teacher is a stereotype, at least they are different stereotypes. But as the film proceeds and each reveals a compromising secret, they all seem to be at fault. The one halfway moral character – the inexperienced student – seems to think that all the school’s problems will be solved by digitalisation, but is this a remotely serious reaction to the lack of motivation of underpaid teachers in under-resourced schools
It’s maybe not fair to criticize a comedy for not being system-critical enough, so here’s my main criticism. Eingeschlossene Gesellschaft just isn’t funny enough. Most of its characters are walking clichés, and the jokes are telegraphed long before we hear them (not least the final joke that is mentioned so many times throughout the film, that the constant repetition becomes deadly boring),
For all this, parts of the film are actually enjoyable, particularly at the beginning when we still don’t quite know exactly where all this is heading. The acting is generally good, there are some witty retorts, and, as said, it is a decent setup. In a sense it’s worse that all the potential is ultimately wasted. Then again, many people in the cinema laughed all the way through, so what do I know?