Mr. Bachmann and His Class | Review
Teacher Feature: Speth Captures the Complex Alchemy of Education and Empathy in Moving Documentary
What do you remember most about your experience as a student, particularly in elementary school? Do you remember the process of learning subjects or do you remember the tone and demeanor of certain educators? Chances are, these memories are riddled with the detritus of various competing energies, including home life, current events, interactions with peers, etc. But no one forgets a teacher who moved them, helped them, or took the time to get to know them. Director Maria Speth, who fluctuates between narrative and documentary filmmaking, has formatted a formidably intimate documentary experience with her cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider in Mr. Bachmann and His Class, filmed over the course of one year.
It’s not just any old year for the educator, Mr. Bachmann, who at the age of 65 had commenced his last year in Stadtallendorf, a German city with a complex population of foreigners. The result is an oft moving, sometimes languorous process of classroom education marked irrevocably by the parameters of a certain time and a certain place, as conducted by a teacher with somewhat controversial ideas about instilling a sense of equality and kindness. With patience, precision and equanimity, the result is a vision of a process which demands much more than peddling information and assigning grades, and Speth presents a quietly melancholic state of grace.
Dieter Bachmann is a somewhat controversial yet beloved teacher in the city of Stadtallendorf, Germany. It’s a factory town, with at least 25% of the population being foreign to Germany, although the diversity of classroom 6b, suggests this is higher than statistics confirm, as representatives from twelve different nations are on hand this particular year. Notably, Bachmann is on the verge of retirement, an energy nowhere to be found in his winking nods and conversational tones with students he seems genuinely interested in getting to know. Asides with his colleague, Ms. Bal, finds a man intensely interested in assisting his students, many of whom don’t speak German well (yet), on their ascent to secondary school so they may successfully navigate the education system. Hopeful, positive, and touching, another studious year unspools.
Not all the three-and-a-half-hour plus running time is spent in the classroom, as Speth shows Bachmann in his own home with his guard down amongst colleagues. Over drinks, Bachmann conveys his feelings about how his career enlivens him and has changed over the years. “I’ve never had to face discrimination,” he muses when a friend offers to take him on a trip to Turkey. Speth also showcases another of Bachmann’s colleagues, Aynur Bal, a Turkish woman who has lived in Germany for the past thirteen years. Pregnant during the filming, she’s often moved by the students’ sharing of their immigration, often marked by sadness and trauma. Ms. Bal feels equally important as another conduit for the students, some of whom can relate to her more easily (bashfully, some of the boys are teased about being in love with her, to which she responds calmly, remarking how beautiful it is to love).
As Herr Bachmann begins, he professes his desire to make his students feel at home. As students blearily arrive in the morning, he invites them to ‘take a dive,’ a restful, meditative nap session before jumping into the day. His tone is often playful with them, exchanging commiserations often comedic (“Thank god we know this,” he drolly remarks when one student blurts out an excuse for why a relative cannot attend a school event). Often, he goes around the room asking for students to share how to say various phrases in their native tongue, a way to integrate the class by showcasing how each of them has something to contribute both as students and future citizens.
Speth’s documentary is perhaps most touching when simply observing. Reading hour finds the camera glancing over a variety of materials raptly being consumed. Bachmann is engrossed by Karl May, while his students are invested in age-appropriate materials, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Their musical sessions are something to behold, with Bachmann leading them through his renditions of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Jolene,” to which the students affably submit. Some may recall Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winner The Class (2008), in which Francois Begaudeau played a version of himself with a similarly diverse student body from what was considered a rough Parisian neighborhood, but Speth has conjured something more intimate and special, and while we’re watching these twelve-to-fourteen-year-olds receive their education, the audience is also receiving one as well.
Although there are no real heavy-handed or dramatic moments, you’ll hold your breath as Bachmann carefully addresses more controversial subjects about equality, respect, and sexuality which will be sure to rub puritanical conservatives insane. Quietly and conversationally, Mr. Bachmann navigates certain minefields, such as sexual activity at a young age and the necessity of normalizing same sex relationships.
Through Bachmann, Speth presents the necessity of teachers having not only the ability but the desire to actually educate their students about love and not hate, dispelling ignorant ideas ingrained at home, through media, by parents and religious institutions. In essence, Mr. Bachmann and His Class unfortunately feels like a dying gasp of hope from a noble and kind teacher’s last year in action. As the year bleeds into its final hours, with hugs and gifts exchanged, Speth lenses Bachmann from behind, sporting his new Bulgarian hat, quietly wiping away a tear as we sit in a graceful sense of finality. One recalls a silly poem by Roald Dahl about an envious student, “My teacher wasn’t half as nice as yours seems to be.” Perhaps many of us will be thinking the same of Mr. Bachmann in comparison to our own experiences.
Reviewed on March 2nd at the 2021 (virtual edition) of the Berlin International Film Festival – Main Competition. 217 Mins.