Mr Bachmann and his class – a must see educational film study (Berlinale review)
Where does one feel at home? In Stadtallendorf, a German city with a complex history of both excluding and integrating foreigners, genial teacher Dieter Bachmann offers his pupils the key to at least feeling as if they are at home. Aged between twelve and fourteen, these pupils come from twelve different nations; some have not quite mastered the German language. On the brink of retirement, Bachmann is eager to inspire these citizens-in-the-making with a sense of curiosity for a wide range of crafts, subjects, cultures and opinions.
Watching this absorbing, sensitive documentary, one is overwhelmed with the realisation that, if only all children were blessed with such emotionally intelligent, ever-patient educators, conflict would be mitigated via discussion and John Lennon’s “Imagine” could be our reality. Maria Speth and her cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider, follow Mr. Bachmann’s class for almost a full school year. During this journey we observe the characters and idiosyncrasies of the kids in the class, building slowly an opinion for some of them but also see how they progress in their school performance and German language skills.
The approach of Speth is both gentle and distant from the action in the classroom with the viewer getting the impression she that looks the class through a keyhole, getting views on the class in full session, on meetings with parents, on the breaks, on private discussions of Bachmann and some of his pupils. Thematically the closest film to Mr Bachmann is the Palm d’or winner “The Class” which was also about a class with lots of kinds of immigrant background, but this film is 100% documentary and not fictionalized as The Class. Moreover it doesn’t only takes into account the class dynamics, but also gives a thorough view on the German educational system and the history of Stadtallendorf, and its importance to understanding the background of the society the kids are living.
The innovative methods of Bachmann are of course the backbone of the film: not every teacher is playing guitar during class, or encourages his pupils to play some drums to relax, neither takes as much time of the sessions to talk about social issues like the ideal relationship, gender politics, same sex marriage. Being in Germany, and in a historically loaded area, with forced labor camps around, the subject of how German school and Bachmann’s class specifically handles the World War 2 part of the history, is of course touched. Moreover with Bachmann’s class being mostly foreigners, the issue is becoming more interesting, and the whole idea of an identity – if someone would feel German or Turkish or Russian – is extensively discussed during the film. To get an idea of the city the film is taking place, a parent that arrived there this year tells to Bachmann, through his kid that translates, that he learned more Turkish than German during his stay, because of the heavy presence of the Turkish community. During the pass of the school year Bachmann and other teachers face small and bigger problems with the pupils, having ultimately to decide by the end of the year who will follow his education to Gymnasium (the high school for the best students) and how will go to other lower or technical schools. A decision, that as the grades that the teacher gives, is just a picture in time, as Bachmann says and should not make the kids disappointed.
The film manages also to surpass the idolizing of Bachmann, since it gives him plenty of human moments. In one of them, he discusses how this is his last year before retirement and goes back in time when he didn’t even want to be a teacher, mirroring in his words to his kids that life is only starting for them and they should make the best of it.
All in all, Speth tries to fit a whole school year in 3,5 hours of film and manages to do so in a spectacular way, giving us a film that is not in any point boring or unnecessary. “Mr Bachmann and his class” should be a must watch for teachers and parents, but also a really important, yet fun and inspiring film, for everyone else to watch.