‘Mr. Bachmann and His Class’: Film Review | Berlin 2021

Maria Speth’s intimate portrait of an unorthodox teacher and his sixth-grade students, most of them from immigrant families, won the Silver Bear Jury Prize at Berlin.

When filmmaker Maria Speth brought her documentary crew to a provincial German school, her goal was “open-ended observation.” Observing a classroom where jam sessions and juggling lessons are as likely as instruction in math and grammar, she achieves that and more with Mr. Bachmann and His Class, one of the most effortlessly absorbing and deeply encouraging nonfiction films of recent memory.

The Wiseman-esque doc unfolds at an unhurried and richly rewarding pace, introducing us to the industrial town of Stadtallendorf, in central Germany, before zeroing in on Class 6B of the Georg Büchner School, where Speth’s friend Dieter Bachmann has been a teacher for 17 years — what he laughingly calls “my longest relationship.” Like the great American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, Speth draws us into a world without providing even basic explanatory titles, leaving us to sort out who’s who, what’s what and why it matters.

The Bottom Line

Just might restore your faith in humanity.

After a quick, eloquent sketch of the setting — in the predawn hours a bakery begins its day’s work; a bus filled with schoolchildren makes its way through the dark — Speth plunges the viewer into a class discussion driven by Bachmann, a charmingly rumpled sexagenarian in cargo pants, hoodie and knit cap. The subject is an improvised modern-day parable about an electric guitar and a table, a head-scratcher whose real-world relevance the still-sleepy children gradually piece together. This is an exercise not just in storytelling and critical thinking but in German, which isn’t the first language of most of the students. Reflecting the town’s predominantly non-native makeup, their family roots are elsewhere: Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, Morocco, Sardinia, Romania, Kazakhstan, Brazil.

And they’re not far removed from those roots; many of them were born in those countries and still consider them home, even if they’ve spent most of their young lives in Germany. Another teacher, Aynur Bal, herself from Turkey, points out the paradox when a girl says she feels more at home in Turkey, but can’t remember how to say “homeland” in her native tongue.

The students taught by Ms. Bal and Mr. Bachmann are an engaging bunch who range in age from 12 to 14. Technically this is an elementary school, but Americans might discern a middle school or junior high school vibe. In the school’s “comprehensive” approach, students with a wide range of scholastic aptitudes, particularly in terms of their grasp of German, are taught together. It’s up to Bachmann and his colleagues to recommend who will graduate to high school. That’s a responsibility he takes seriously, even as he stresses to his students that their grades are “just snapshots” and don’t reflect who they truly are.

A musician, sculptor and unrepentant bohemian, Bachmann arranges his class schedule to include time for his students to read books (to themselves). Notwithstanding the room’s neatly arranged desks, it has the inviting feel of a hangout, Bachmann’s wood carvings among its casual adornments. A table in the corner holds fixings for tea, a couch is available for anyone who needs a rest, and, crucially, a drum set, guitars and other instruments occupy a corner where various combinations of students and teacher jam out. You may never hear “Smoke on the Water,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Jolene” the same way again.

Most of Speth’s documentary takes place within that classroom, but she also captures some of the students in outside pursuits: one boy practicing his moves in a dance studio, another pursuing his dream at a local boxing gym (which happens to be the subject of one of Wiseman’s greatest recent films). The students’ parents are seen only when they visit the school, for parent-teacher conferences and a class party — and music features in both instances.

A sense that these families are still not settled in Stadtallendorf, not really at home, comes through potently in the parents’ conversations with Bachmann. Seamlessly weaving in the town’s history of “guest workers” and forced labor in the Nazi era, the filmmaker lends these present-day stories a haunting edge. Reinhold Vorschneider’s cinematography is expressive in its directness and its restraint as the camera gazes upon abandoned train tracks and the bustling factories where many of the kids’ fathers work. These were once major munitions plants for the Third Reich. The rooftop trees planted to camouflage some of the buildings during wartime are still flourishing.

Later in the film, Bachmann will reveal to his students his own (Polish) family’s place in this history. A couple of interactions outside work, including one with his younger colleague Önder Cavdar, offer further glimpses into his biography and how he became a teacher. That he’s out of step with most of his (unseen) colleagues is no surprise. “The school as an institution alienated me right from the start,” he tells a sculptor friend. “It still does.” But over the years, clearly, he found his groove. His irreverent give-and-take with the students is rewarding on both sides of the equation. Speth is attentive to the kids’ openness, inquisitiveness, intelligence and humor, and to the ways they surprise and delight Bachmann, who in meetings with their parents advocates unequivocally for them. When he calls out a girl on her intolerance, it’s a one-on-one discussion, not a lecture. When cultural frictions and adolescent emotions flare, he’s a peacemaker.

The documentary chronicles Bachmann’s final months in the job, but it’s more concerned with in-the-moment exchanges than valedictory tears. In its sap-free way, the film is a comfort, an inspiring testament to the way the right teacher at the right time might be one of life’s greatest gifts. As 14-year-old Hasan, seated beside his 65-year-old teacher, declares with feeling, “We did good things in this room.”

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: Madonnen Film
Director-producer-editor: Maria Speth
Screenwriters: Maria Speth, Reinhold Vorschneider
Director of photography: Reinhold Vorschneider
International sales: Films Boutique

In German
217 minutes