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‘When my grandad arrived he was illiterate, and now his grandson is earning this country an Oscar nomination’

The Teachers’ Lounge director Ilker Çatak on his tense, multilayered film about attempts to identify a thief in a multicultural German school

“So you come back home and tell your parents you’re a college dropout,” says Ilker Çatak. “You can imagine what that feels like. None of them have studied. I was an only child. It was really important for me to go to university. Then you tell them you’re a dropout. I was in academia. I could have been something decent – a lawyer or a doctor.”

Çatak, a German of Turkish descent, still sounds a tad guilty. He was at college when a careers adviser sat him down and wondered what he really wanted to do with his life. He confessed that he was unhappy and that cinema was his only escape. “Then you should just go ahead and make films,” he remembers being told. Next day he went for a job at a production company.

Çatak is plainly sympathetic to his parents’ distress. His grandfather came to Germany in the 1960s as a factory worker. Having a first child in college was, indeed, an important thing for the family. But he ended up doing them proud. He went on to study directing in Berlin and Hamburg. His first feature was well received. Top-level success came last year when The Teachers’ Lounge, a brilliant exercise in paranoia, premiered to raves at Berlin International Film Festival, ruled the German film awards and went on to grab an Oscar nomination for best international feature (in a notably competitive year).

“I honestly didn’t expect any of this,” he says. “It’s a tiny little film. In May last year we were at the German film awards – and we were in the same category as All Quiet on the Western Front, which had just won four Oscars. All of a sudden we won best film, best directing and best screenplay. That was the first moment where I thought, Wow, this film apparently resonates with people.”

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This is just the sort of film that appeals across cultures. Unease sweeps a German school after a number of thefts in the staffroom. Leonie Benesch plays a decent teacher, uneasy at pressure to identify the most likely culprits on scanty evidence. When the students are asked to turn out their pockets a Turkish boy falls under suspicion for carrying a significant amount of cash. There is something here about racial profiling and the urge to other the outsider. Çatak’s net reaches wider. Benesch’s character, now turned sleuth, looks to have found evidence of another teacher’s guilt. But has she really? The film is also about the dangers of a rush to judgment. One can’t escape the notion that we’re watching a metaphor for wider society.

“Yeah, we were aware of that,” says Çatak. “We were aware of the fact that school has similar structures to a country or a state. You have a president. You have people in charge. You have a student body, which would be the people. You have a newspaper. We were observing what’s going on in the world. We were trying to emulate our feeling of what’s going on – the search for truth, the way the culture has shifted, the way nobody is listening any more.”

There is much to recommend in The Teachers’ Lounge. Benesch creates a stubborn hero for the age: someone who refuses to wave away doubts to allow an easy life. The varied juvenile actors make up a convincing simulacrum of a divided society. Çatak and his cowriter deserve particular praise for allowing ambiguity into every line. We are never entirely sure where our sympathies should lie. I wonder if the writers themselves have a clear idea what is going on. Do they know, for example, if Mrs Kuhn, the accused teacher, is innocent or guilty?

“No, because you don’t have to have a clear view of what happened,” says Çatak. “I know what I need to tell my actors. That’s all I need to know. I said to her, ‘You’re going to act as if you’re completely innocent.’ The moment you give away who did it the whole construct falls apart. You cannot work with that. All of a sudden there’s right and there’s wrong. That’s something you want to avoid as a film-maker – at least I do. You’re looking for these grey areas where everybody could possibly be right.”

He tells a story of a table read. Eva Löbau, who plays Mrs Kuhn, was present when he asked who among the cast thought her guilty.

“Almost everybody raised their arms,” he says. “Eva was close to tears. ‘How can you think of her like that? You don’t have proof. How quick are you with your judgments? What is this? Why are you so mean? She’s innocent?’ She thought she was innocent. The question of whether she did it or not does not concern me.”

That little Oscar statue has a sword in his hands. That’s because they are protecting their culture. That comes with responsibility

For all the acclaim on release, it was a long journey to that Oscar nomination. Only one film gets submitted from each country. You next need to get on to the 15-strong shortlist just before Christmas, then make it to the final five in January. The Zone of Interest was always likely to win. But a place beside that and Wim Wenders’s much-loved Perfect Days was something to treasure.

We talk just a few days after he attended the nominees’ lunch in Los Angeles. The photo of that event is always a delight.

“It’s just surreal to be sharing that stage with people like Marty Scorsese or Steven Spielberg or Carey Mulligan or Margot Robbie,” he says. “They’re standing next to you on that very same stage. And you are in that same picture. We got our certificate and it said, ‘We are craftsmen, we are guardians, we are educators, we are the champions of film-makers, past, present future.’ That little Oscar statue has a sword in his hands. That’s because they are protecting their culture. That comes with responsibility.”

It is warming to find someone so frank in his acknowledgment of the honour. We can (with occasional justification) snort at the Oscars. But the achievements marked are not just cinematic ones.

“This happened two generations after my grandad came to this country,” he says. “When he arrived he was illiterate, and now his grandson is earning this country an Oscar nomination.”

He is punching home the point with captivating enthusiasm.

“In Germany we now have this far right. I just want everybody to know these stories actually happen.”

The Teachers’ Lounge is in cinemas from Friday, April 12th