Herr Bachmann and His Class
(Germany, 217 min.)
Dir. Maria Speth
Imagine if School of Rock was real. Then Jack Black would be called Dieter Bachmann, teacher, old-school rocker, the hero of Maria Speth’s 2021 Berlinale Competition entry, the documentary Herr Bachmann and His Class. If 217 minutes about school sound as daunting as middle school, rest assured Speth delivers a slow-burning, engaging and enlightening drama, as quietly absorbing as her previous films. Hours of material out of the two-year shoot must have fallen to the wayside before the class became so oblivious to the camera that we were able to join them one morning as if we belonged there.
Cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider sets us up on clean lines against the bustle of the classroom, shooting diagonally across the room, facing the students or watching from the side. We get several minutes of Mr. Bachmann resting, face down, on his classroom day bed (a futon on crates): his life is this class. The camera focuses our gaze, yet nothing about the film and its protagonists is static. Staying close to the teaching, the film takes place 90% in that classroom. When class ends we don’t want to leave since we’ve have come to care nearly as much as Bachmann does for his dozen rowdy tweens. I hope Speth in 10 years will revisit these kids, as Monica Treut does with her old subjects in this year’s Berlinale documentary reprise Genderation.
Like all good stories, Herr Bachmann and His Class has love and loss, obstacles and great expectations, troublemakers and heroes. The kids have parents with multiple jobs, and unsurprisingly, forget their stuff and struggle with forming their personalities. A (pregnant and a bit more emotional) Turkish-German teacher colleague sighs while correcting a girl claiming her mosque teacher told them they are not allowed to enter churches. “Unfortunately, you’re getting some things wrong.” Later, the same hijabed 12-year-old sings along to Bachmann’s rendition of “Jolene”, begging to please don’t take her man, as we check our assumptions.
Bachmann is about to retire. He studied sociology in Berlin in the 1970s, explaining his alternative style. His uniform is band hoodies, a toque, and dirty cargo pants (he is a sculptor). He introduces the kids to Deep Purple and writes them folk songs about queer sex. Bachmann is so intriguing to the viewer because we, too, learn from him despite the film never being pedagogical. Do the kids try to mock or challenge this outlier? All the time. He flips the taunts back at them or deflects “the gangsters in the back.” He has everyone’s number, keeps checking in, never lets anyone off the hook. “So if kids with a low IQ have sex earlier and they just called me an idiot, can I have sex earlier?” – “If you worked that out then perhaps you’re not an idiot.”
Mr. Bachmann grabs the kids where he can, without judgment (and there is a lot swirling around in their worlds, from divorce strife to homophobia). They practice German grammar with the sentence “Stefi always hits Cengizhan.” This is not a sanitized North American school system of wishful social projection; it is a (safer, moderated) mirror of real life. In passing, he makes sure the diabetic injects insulin, gives the kids money to bring him lunch while roping them into conversations of who cooks and cleans at home. He builds their confidence and resilience, makes them dream bigger than requesting to be down-streamed, shows them options to look at the world differently than parents or society or context suggest. You don’t need a translation when the precocious Stefi’s Russian-speaking Turkish-Bulgarian dad says “no chance” when Mr. Bachmann tries to coax ideas of becoming a doctor out of the daughter. What does Herr Bachmann do? Grab his guitar and sing an Italian song with the talented girl. The dad’s lured in, as are we: “You are a good, emotional teacher.”
Producer-writer-director-editor Speth teases out and splices together the essential truth of how communities are shaped through education and single educators, against the backdrop of culture, gender and identity. Bachmann, never naive, always tuned in, is the great equalizer, as is Speth. The controlled and composed feat of film editing is carried by the secret ingredient: multi-faceted and charismatic protagonists. Speth and Bachmann have known each other for decades and their trust and rapport is a stroke of luck, creating a thoughtful observational panorama not just of a school room but a microcosm representing the disparate societies we live in.
We are in Stadtallendorf, at heart an industrialized German village with a complex history of excluding as well as integrating newcomers. The students of class 6b come from a dozen different countries; some barely speak German; many are solid D students with accommodations. On the brink of retirement, Bachmann is still eager to inspire these citizens-in-the-making with a sense of curiosity through engagement and creativity.
Mr. Bachmann belongs to Speth’s world, connecting to the motherhood drama Madonnas starring Sandra Hüller (also in competition in Berlin), the feature Daughters (starring a teacher looking for her run-away teen), and the documentary 9 Lives (the impetus for Daughters) portraying homeless youths. In 2015, Speth was in Toronto for a retrospective of her work, at the invitation of the University of Toronto and the Goethe-Institut. “My films are neither meant to morally judge nor to emotionalize in a certain way. They are about creating a space that enables the characters to show, to manifest themselves,” she told me back then and it holds true for her fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. (She was already working on the idea of a durational documentary about this teacher in Hesse back then).
There are not a lot but enough explicit and implicit glimpses of the world outside, the town of 20,000 with manufacturing and construction jobs. Family-teacher-student evenings marry Turkish tea and German cake, while the class band is playing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” Only in the second half of the film do we learn a bit about Bachmann’s background, training and family. Speth’s style mimics Mr. Bachmann’s teaching methods: patiently observing, collecting and weighing impressions, then looping back to fit pieces together to achieve the desired effect. “Where does your father work? – At the Winter factory,” goes one seemingly surface teacher-student exchange. 20 minutes later we learn that Winter employed forced Eastern European labourers under Hitler. These loops weave the film’s fabric. When we watch these immigrant kids watch a 1974 short documentary on their grandparents’ “guest worker” generation, plus ça change, we feel the perpetuated alienation and marginalization.
Everything boils down to mutual respect. Bachmann demands commitment, discipline, and individual responsibility; the students yell “I love my class!” His values are as old-school as his AC/DC shirt: solidarity and equality, but you have to apply yourself. He protects the weak and keeps the bullies in check. “I’m here. What happened?” Two hours into the film, the “shit” (Bachmann’s words, and something he does not take) hits the fan. There’s a frank class debate on discrimination that is humbling to witness. Emotions run high, and you can see Herr Bachmann’s jaw tighten, but he (almost always) keeps it together. One of the girls reads the class the riot act about helping each other out. He talks about feelings with the boys, gives them the literal and emotional vocabulary. Playfully, he tries to make an embarrassed cool kid translate “I love you” in his native language, clearly just to make him imagine the words. We see amazingly mature and evolving conversations, never mind language barriers, misinformation and misconceptions.
Herr Bachmann is an exceptional, intuitive and inspiring educator and man. He’s a coach, confidante, champion, family therapist and lightning rod. Speth projects that special teacher-student bond to the audience by listening to and caring for especially her more difficult characters, while keeping the reins firmly in hand.
The ending is arresting and ambiguous. Real change can happen, or rather Herr Bachmann and His Class show us that you can choose to make it happen. The film adjusts the viewer’s perspective: we question, empathize, check our own prejudices and attitudes. Dieter Bachmann deserves the German Cross of Merit; Maria Speth deserves a Bear for the craft and heart demonstrated in this prolonged observational documentary.
Herr Bachmann and His Class premiered at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival.