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Judith Kaufmann BVK • Das Lehrerzimmer/ The Teacher’s Lounge

Mar 8, 2024

(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 019)

CLASSROOM THRILLER

By Ron Prince

Director İlker Çatak’s acclaimed feature, The Teachers’ Lounge, delivers a taut and unnerving study into how one small incident can proliferate into serious misunderstandings, suspicion, intimidation and cultural clashes.

When one of her high-school students is suspected of theft, idealistic teacher Carla Nowak tries to get to the bottom of things. However, she soon gets caught between her principles and the school system, with volatile consequences that might just break her.

The film was named as one of the top five international films of 2023, by The National Board of Review, and selected as Germany’s entry for best international feature at the 2024 BAFTA and Oscar awards. It was shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, by German DP Judith Kaufmann BVK, whose dynamic handheld camerawork investigates the classrooms, corridors and bathrooms in which the truth might be concealed.

When and where did you shoot?

Principal photography too place between October 2nd and November 15th, 2022, at one main location – a vacant, former-university, that was built in the 1960s in Hamburg, where we shot for 24 days of our 28 schedule. We used the existing space and restructured it, but didn’t build any sets. We also shot in the gym of a nearby school.

How much preparation time did you have?

As the entire film takes place at only one location, we started looking for the right school five months before shooting began. My core prep started two months before the shoot.

Tell about your past collaborations with İlker?

İlker and I met in 2014 – he was a directing student at the time and I was giving a directing-camera seminar. I immediately noticed his energy and talent, and his studies ended shortly after with a Student Oscar for Sadakat (2015, DP Florian Mag). When his cinematographer dropped-out from one of his subsequent films, İlker approached me to be his DP. That was 2019. Since then we have worked together several times and The Teachers’ Lounge is our third film collaboration.

What did you feel about the script from your point-of-view?

I was involved in brainstorming for a year-and-a-half before shooting began. I found İlker’s idea, of using the school as a playing field, as a microcosm and reflection of society, very exciting.

I liked the restriction of shooting in just one location, but, of course, was a little afraid that this would be a film in which you only have talking or listening heads in front of windows and doors and shelves, and that there would be too little room for images without words and atmospheric elements.

“The time pressure on shooting the classroom scenes was immense”

The script had a strong construction and we considered which visual language this construction would be least noticeable. The school is an everyday place and almost all the scenes take place during the day, but we wanted to create a visual pull, for the school to be its own cosmos.

My biggest question for the camera was how we would shoot long scenes with the kids in the classroom? How would we keep the liveliness of the kids and their direct reactions?

In Germany, children are only allowed to be on set for five hours and shoot for three, so the time pressure on shooting the classroom scenes was immense.

What research did you do? Did you look at any visual references?

We visited a wide variety of schools in advance to gather visual references. İlker talked to countless teachers, counsellors and psychologists, and did an internship before filming began, spending many hours in classrooms and teachers’ rooms. 

Together, of course, we watched a lot of well-known school-based films. Specifically, we were inspired by Dardenne Brothers’ Le Jeune Ahmet, (2019, DP Benoît Dervaux), Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) and American Honey (2016) (both DP’d by Robbie Ryan ISC BSC), Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (2014, DP André Turpin), and Stéphane Brizé The Measure Of A Man (2017, DP Eric Dumont).

But the most important cinematic inspirations for us came from two films. Firstly, Elephant (2003, DP Harris Savides ASC) by Gus van Sant, for its strong feeling of closeness to the adolescents, the lighting moods and camerawork that immerse the viewers into a school-cosmos that has its own rules, procedures and unforgettable atmosphere, and, of course, it’s 4:3 aspect ratio.

The other was The Class/Entre Les Murs (2008, DPs Pierre Milon/Catherine Pujol) by Laurent Cantet. It is a stirring film in which the main character is a real teacher, not an actor, and whose improvisations bring an incredible authenticity, directness and unpredictability to the interactions, liveliness, meanness and power of the young people. The camera manages to capture everything seemingly effortlessly and be part of the class. All of this was a great inspiration.

What aspect ratio did you choose? And why?

During prep İlker and I talked a lot about how the 4:3 format reminded us both of our school days, a bit like looking at a Polaroid. The narrowness of 4:3 format can be used to isolate characters or emphasise loneliness in a group, but it also gives each individual more weight and presence. For example, we could show a single child and at the same time see their hands on the table, and scribbles in their notebooks. If you wanted to show a child’s upper body in 2.35:1 you would already have the second child in frame.

Also, the effect of watching 4:3 format is interesting. You feel constricted and cramped in the picture. The idea was also to make the pressure palpable for everyone, and you become part of a system that cannot widen its view.

For İlker and me 4:3 was cinematic challenge. Neither of us had shot in this format before, and we were euphoric about daring to try something new and being forced to find new ways of framing.

Which cameras and lenses did you choose?

It was quickly clear how mobile we had to be, firstly because of the time pressure – we only had 28 shooting days, and kids are only allowed to shoot three hours a day – and second, because the camera had to be very responsive.

So we shot with an ARRI Alexa Mini and Leica Summilux-C T1.4 lenses, supplied by  MBF, Hamburg, along with the lighting package.

“We wanted the camera to observe, but not judge or denounce”

We shot in winter with only a few hours of daylight, so I needed fast lenses. The Summilux-Cs have a T1.4, are very light and good for shooting handheld. For the class scenes with the kids, we shot with two cameras, both with zoom lenses – an Angenieux 24-290mm and Optimo 45-120mm – mostly positioned at a 90-degrees to each other.

Did you work with a colourist to create LUTs?

I always work with grading on-set so that the dailies are as similar as possible to the final look. Everyone can get used to that look and there are fewer discussions in the final DI.

To find the look, I test before each film, preferably at the main location with the main actors in costume and make-up, and in the most relevant light set-ups. The screening of graded tests with all the HoDs in a cinema then forms the basis for the look.

For The Teachers’ Lounge, I worked with DIT Patrick Locher to create LUTs based on the analysis of various 35mm film stocks. We wanted to work with a fairly high contrast and strengthen the blue and brown tones.

What was your approach to moving/motivating the camera?

I don’t really like to work from a tripod because it restricts me too much. I want to be more mobile and that’s why I usually have the camera on a mini-jib arm or do handheld.

We wanted the camera to be with Carla, to experience everything from her perspective, but to never know more than her. Emotionally, we also wanted to be with her colleagues and the children too. We wanted the camera to observe seismic events, but not judge or denounce during the momentum of a situation that could not be stopped.

In the classroom scenes we shot with two cameras, and worked with Steadicam to follow Carla through the labyrinthine corridors. Many scenes are also shot with handheld camera.

I always operate. The shoot was difficult for the 1st AC because we shot without rehearsals so as to not jeopardise the liveliness of the children.

What was your approach to the lighting?

The lighting set-up was designed to give us the greatest authenticity, and to allow us the flexibility of shooting in 360-degrees. In the classroom and the teachers’ room, it was especially important to me that the windows were not too overexposed, so that it felt like the real world and not a studio-set. Furthermore, because of short days in winter, we had to allow for night-for-day shooting.

We bounced light into interiors using M40s, plus 12×12 or 20×12 butterflies, that were housed on rigs or cranes. Indoors we worked mainly with LiteMats, Astera fixtures and ARRI SkyPanels. We tried to integrate practicals as much as possible and to not have lighting stands around the location.

So the whole lighting design was very much driven by practicality. Our focus was to be completely free with the camera, to get the kids in the mood and then shoot quickly and without interruption. To create special lighting moods and atmosphere, we put up blinds, curtains and shades, and adjusted the practicals to our needs by fitting them with LEDs.

How did this film challenge you/encourage your skills?

The entire film is set in one location and two-thirds of it takes place in the classroom and teachers’ room. The big challenge for me was to create atmospheric light, but not to lose authenticity, and to always be able to look 360-degrees.

We shot whilst there were still Covid protocols, and the time restrictions with the children were stressful. It was a matter of being fast and ready to improvise. And trying to stay as relaxed as possible, so that the children felt comfortable.

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