Miller’s predecessor was found dead on the beach. In an interview with Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench), the only important question is “What kind of Englishman would accept a teaching post at Hitler’s German Girls’ League?” Miller replies, in German, that his father was German. Whether that’s an adequate response or if Rocholl has no alternative, Miller gets the job and is in the classroom moments later. Astrid (Maria Dragus), arrogant and considered by the other girls as their leader, does not take long to fire him. “The Führer looks like he’s not man enough,” she whispers to a classmate in German, assuming he doesn’t understand the language. But he shows her that he speaks it as well as she does, and she settles down or seems to.
The film tells us at least three different stories at once and the spy story is the least interesting. At first, the arrival of the new professor has a “Jane Eyre” tone, with Miller as a (relatively) naive stranger arriving in a dark and ominous old building filled with secrets. Then there is the real story of the school, which is part of a plan for a “soft power” foray into Britain at a time when the appeasement strategy and some of the wealthy and powerful elites are dying. England were very sympathetic to Hitler. Cinematographer Chris Seager is particularly effective with both of these moods. It shows us the girls lined up on the sand, their regimental movements a stark contrast to the natural beauty of the shore and the city’s casual beach goers. “Proper intention makes the right impression,” Rocholl tells the girls as they practice balancing the books on their heads as they walk, to ensure correct posture. Intention, impression and sometimes contrasting underlying reality are explored throughout the film.
It’s less effective in run-with-a-gun scenes, as does acting and writing, all of which fall sharply into the final third. Questions of individual, cultural, and national loyalty – and when and how to react to the aggressive actions of other nations – are sidelined by some weak chase scenes and plot twists. These questions are tackled with the help of different actors: the bus driver character of Jim Broadbent briefly illuminates the scenario; Dench tries to explain that the “Sieg Heil!” salvation is only an expression of pride; and James D’Arcy has fun with a relentless detective. “Why criticize a country that strives to be great?” Rocholl asks Miller. She says her school is dedicated to protecting girls from the outside world. But as Trotsky said, you may not be interested in war, but you are interested in war.