By C.J. Hirschfield
March 14, 2022
Cinema junkies forgive iconic documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman for the length of some of his works that venture deep into American institutions; his most recent City Hall covering the government of Boston clocked in at four and a half hours. We absolve him because he is so good at taking us inside worlds that we don’t know, as his camera disappears and we learn so much by listening and observing, happy to have made the journey.
Comparisons to Wiseman’s work are inevitable as we describe the numerous joys of Maria Speth’s new documentary, Mr. Bachmann and his Class, the closing night film at Berlin & Beyond 2022, at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. It is now streaming on MUBI.
The fact that this 3-1/2 -hour film is in German with subtitles shouldn’t deter you either—it’s just that damn good. You will be left with the hope that all’s not wrong with the world—that human connection, understanding and patience can build bridges between countries and their diverse people
Winner of the Silver Bear Jury Prize at Berlinale ’21, and featured in the 26th Berlin and Beyond Film Festival (March 11-16), the film covers six months in the classroom of Dieter Bachmann, who teaches immigrant kids from 12-14 in the German city of Standallendorf.
The film begins in early morning, with students making their way to a classroom that looks normal enough, with its orderly tables and sleepy kids. We do not see the teacher for the first six minutes of the film, but the voice we hear is kind. As the film unfolds, we start to understand how special this educator–and his classroom– are. Dressed in a woolen cap, flannel shirt, hoodie and jeans, Mr. Bachmann is on the cusp of his retirement at 65, and this is the last class he will be teaching. And what a class it is. Kids from Turkey, Russia, Bulgaria, Brazil, Morocco, Sardinia, and Kazakhstan whose families were driven to Germany for jobs and security all must quickly learn German, math and other subjects in order to advance to the next level of their education. But what is the best way to teach them, while creating community among kids from vastly different religions and cultures?
In addition to more traditional teaching methods, Mr. Bachmann chooses storytelling, juggling, making music and singing together, as well as questioning—and really listening to—his charges. He engages them in conversations about, well, everything. Religion, homosexuality, the Holocaust—all subjects actively engage these 12-14 -year-old youth. Bachmann also calls them out when he needs to, but in a way that respects their dignity and culture.
There is conflict, but situations are resolved in a loving way. If this sounds boring, it is just the opposite. A scene in which all the kids are singing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is priceless, and observing the kids on two field trips that challenge their fears and preconceptions are eye-opening.
As we watch the seasons change from winter to spring, the time comes for the teacher to make the hard choice about where each kid’s grades will place them, no doubt determining their adult trajectory. Mr. Bachmann makes it clear that the grades don’t reflect who they really are, and urges them to remain true to themselves. “You all are terrific kids,” he tells them, and I think the film’s audiences would have to agree.
Mr. Bachmann does so much hugging in this film that it seems sad that this practice is discouraged in America, because its power to heal is so obvious.
“This sucks. We did good things in this room,” says one student on the last day of school.
Yes, you did.
MR. BACHMANN AND HIS CLASS is now streaming on MUBI.
Mr. Bachmann and His Class showed at 7pm on March 16, 2022 at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. It was part of The 26th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival in the San Francisco Bay Area, at the Castro, Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive and Aquarius Theatre.
You can see the full schedule.
Director Maria Speth’s Website.
Watch scenes from the film plus see and read interviews below.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”
Watch scenes from Mr. Bachman
Dieter Bachmann and I have known each other for decades. After he had started to work in Stadtallendorf as a teacher, he kept telling me for years about this town and the students of Georg Büchner School, and how I should really take a look myself. Approaching this town deep in the German hinterland from one of the surrounding hills, you see a silhouette of fuming factory chimneys in the haze over the plain. From afar, it looks like one big industrial complex, surrounded by blocks of housing on one side and an old timber-framed village on the other. Driving through town, you see roadside signs. They point to a DAG and a WASAG, a „Documentation and information Center”, a “Intermediary Deposit for TNT contaminated soil”. Between them, older buildings whose low roofs are overgrown with greenery. Gnarly pines. Young birches. Brushwood. Inquiring into the history of these traces, one finds that Allendorf was a small farming village until1938, when the Nazi Regime built the biggest production plant for explosives. Leaving your car on the main street, you smell a mix of metal and hazelnut cream. Since the factories for explosives were not destroyed in the war, new industries moved to Stadtallendorf during the post-war Economic Miracle. The foundry Fritz Winter and the Ferrero chocolate factory became the new center of the town.
By visiting Dieter Bachmann in his class, you will experience a teacher who builds a personal, emotional rapport with his students. Someone who does not merely impart knowledge but who involves his full personality with all his weaknesses and strengths. Someone who has no taboos and engages his students without prejudice. Not in the service of political correctness but as lived, emotional openness without any hidden resentment. He creates an open atmosphere without fear in which his students feel safe, where they can show themselves and develop. School becomes their living room, a trusted space where they can talk about anything they have on their minds. With a teacher who in conversation challenges, provokes, encourages, strengthens, promotes solidarity and empathy. Someone who knows that strengthening self-worth can be more important than the Pythagorean theorem. Someone who throws all his abilities in the balance so non-academic skills can develop as well. Juggling. Shaping stone. Building tables. Dancing. Making music. Important activities to foster communication among the students and help overcome social, cultural, and linguistic barriers. The point of departure for this project wasn’t a thesis about the reality of the Federal Republicas an immigration country or the presentation of an alternative pedagogic model, but the open-ended observation and the unprejudiced encounter with these people.
My love for these children germinated during the shoot but fully unfolded only during the edit. A love that was encouraged through their direct emotional openness and their emergent potential. Children who because of their age still hadn‘t developed techniques of dissimulation and because of their backgrounds no techniques of self-presentation. In a certain sense, this love became a leitmotif for my editing work. The children in Bachmann‘s class mostly have an industrial working class background, independently of their Turkish, Russian, Bulgarian or German roots. One can rightly say that their lives are precarious, their opportunities for education and social advancement are limited. But just as Teacher Bachmann offers these young people a chance to develop skills, beauty, and dignity, I wanted to give them the same in my edit: to be stars for 217 minutes.
Mr. Bachmann would like to add a few things:
“It was a snowy winter’s day when I first crossed the school yard of Georg Büchner School. And it hit me somewhat unprepared. I knew this is not really where I wanted to be. No! Rap music blared from somewhere, everything was in commotion and ran and shouted. From a distance, I saw two young boys take my measure. “Hey, who are you looking for? What are you doing here? “ They laughed, not unkindly. “Well, hm: I think I am supposed to become a teacher here,“ I joked.
The boys ‘eyes widened: “Oh yes! Then you should become our teacher! What’s your name? “I almost replied “Dieter,” but managed to say: “I am Mr. Bachmann! “, and they took my hand and brought me to the school administration office. And so, Teacher Bachmann was born! “I often ask myself, how I ended up becoming a teacher. I think the students at Georg Büchner Comprehensive in Stadtallendorf showed me unmistakably what kind of teacher they wanted: one who feeds them apples and cereal and doner kebab, who plays soccer with them, makes music, draws; someone who deciphers with them what the world looks like and what there is to discover; someone they can ask whatever they want, but most of all someone who doesn’t put them down with grades and their own faults… They want a teacher who is as happy to go to school as they are, with whom they can laugh and sing and scream; someone who also puts them back on track when fists fly, or they insult queer or handicapped people. At its core it really is a perfectly normal relationship between children or youths and an adult, with an attitude of: I know you can do this, that is something you better not do, this is out of bounds, but I trust you, I know you have it in you, I like you.”
Sense and sensitivity in education – a conversation with Mr. Bachmann