Had you told me that one of the single most captivating films at this year’s Berlinale would be a three and a half hour documentary about a middle school teacher in a small German city I’m not sure what I would have said. But on my second day of watching nearly 12-plus hours of films from around the globe—all in NYC via an online portal for the virtual edition of this year’s festival—I couldn’t quit Maria Speth’s engrossing film, Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Mr. Bachmann and His Class, 2021).
Set in the city Stadtallendorf, a town with a fraught relationship to its immigrant populations, Speth’s new work opens with a montage that portrays a city teaming with migrant workers. In the dark before sunrise, a Bulgarian baker opens up his shop, loading trays with the first morning bread. As dawn peeks over the horizon, a mosque overflowing with song fills the frame. Cut to a bus making its way along the houses near some of the town’s factories and a few of the Muslim children we meet later boarding the vehicle to ride to school. We later learn that nearly every student in the class has come to the city from outside of Germany—Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, Italy, Transylvania, et al. In fact, of the roughly 21,000 people living in Stadtallendorf, about three-quarters of the population have immigrated, 5,000 are Muslim, and a quarter do not have German citizenship. This kind of demographic isn’t exactly new for Stadtallendorf. About halfway through the film, students visit a cultural heritage site where they learn that Stadtallendorf, previously Allendorf, was also a renowned and secret Nazi ammunitions center, one of the largest in Germany at the time. Forced immigrant labor from German-occupied countries provided the humanpower—“17,000 people from 22 countries”—in a factory, says the attaché to the students. Women mixed explosive material into containers to eliminate air bubbles. Children from Eastern Europe, “the bottom of the barrel” according to the Nazis, also worked there.
So what constitutes a meaningful education for a group of adolescents like these in a town such as Stadtallendorf in the early 21st century? For Bachmann, it entails perfectly peripatetic lessons that often conceal how well-curated they are. Each day with Bachmann is so rich. Yes, he helps students gain proficiency in German, math, and even composing musical bass-lines, but he also opens the floor for conversations about home, homeland, and what one individual might be accustomed to versus another individual from an altogether different background. If a student is noticeably upset or if a conflict occurs between students, Bachmann and the pupils acknowledge and explore the root of the problem. During regular language lessons, they speak openly about impulsive decisions, at-home dynamics that influence classwork, or why a student might be reacting to another in a certain way. All this transpires quite naturally: Bachman nudges, but never aggravates, and Speth’s vérité approach avoids provocation or engagement. In fact, the camera never confronts anyone, and stylized set-ups between subject and filmmaker are avoided entirely. In an early classroom sequence, Bachmann and the students collaboratively craft a whimsical tale about a table in love with an electric guitar. It’s hard to tell where Bachmann is going with this. How can the table get the guitar’s attention, he asks? What can it give the guitar? As students offer suggestions, Bachmann cultivates imaginative thinking, slips in language lessons (e.g., “frosted” is not the same as “frustrated”), has students share how to say “I love you” in their native tongues, builds a communal scene of a band, and eventually turns a seemingly random story into a lesson concerning emotional intelligence. Before we know it, students are representing their visions on the page through drawing. So much of Bachmann’s approach functions this way, cultivating a thirst for curiosity that speaks both vertically and horizontally through multiple disciplines, to the whole multinational community, and to each individual malleable mind.
It’s fairly spectacular to witness the school community grow and part of what makes the film so spot-on is that Speth treats her potential viewers with the same respect Bachmann treats his students: there is no pandering or dumbing down; no telling us how to think. No melodramatic, high-pitched, shrill face-offs between students or student and teacher, no gripping climaxes over the course of the almost four hour runtime. No saccharine scenes to win us over; no soundtrack to sway us emotionally towards empathetic states with the immigrant school-children’s precarious economic or linguistic plights. (In fact, the only bit of music in the soundtrack consists of the sixth-graders’ occasional improvising, jamming, and learning to play the drum or bass line from American rock songs, with Bachmann as their unassuming leader.) His approach to teaching—be it German, English, Art, or Music—grows out of the co-conspiratorial model where the entire class is an ensemble made up of individuals whose life experiences, routines, study habits, and adolescent urges inform the route the day takes. Like Bachmann, who talks about himself and his teaching after about two hours in (and even then only casually to a sculptor friend), Speth’s film nonchalantly ushers in its thinking, captivating us as it unfurls. While the bulk of the shooting of the film occurs in the school building, Speth and her cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider incorporate panoramic views of the city’s factories, shop exteriors, and locations frequented by the school children and their parents—after all, the life of a student takes place as much outside of the classroom as it does inside the classroom.
As someone who has been in the business of teaching for over 20 years and spends probably more time than is healthy thinking about alternative teaching models, practices and how to get people to do things they didn’t know were possible, I watched Bachmann through the lens of my own travails as an educator and vis-a-vis the storied terrain of influential pedagogues throughout my life. What maneuvers did they pull? How does one work the magic of opening people up? Through his lack of assertions Bachmann constantly affirms that good teaching consists in equipping people with a hunger to be curious: curious about oneself, the unknown, others, communities, and how and why the world is what it is. Good teaching is also empowering people to access parts of themselves they didn’t know they had. Watching this film I thought about something opera and theater director Peter Sellars said during a wonderfully meandering six-hour seminar appearance I attended in graduate school: “You teach to create the world you want to live in; not the one we actually live in.”