Mr. Bachmann and His Class took director Maria Speth years to research, six months to shoot, and another three years to edit.
The fly-on-the-wall documentary follows the eponymous Herr Bachmann, an extraordinary elementary school teacher in the industrial town of Stadtallendorf outside Frankfurt. His class of sixth-graders, 12- to 14-year-olds, most of them recent immigrants of the children of immigrants, is the kind of group often discussed in the tabloid media, or in worrying tones on the country’s serious talk shows. The picture Speth provides, with her “open-ended observation” is much more empathic, and far more hopeful.
“One of the most effortlessly absorbing and deeply encouraging nonfiction films of recent memory,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote in its review of the film, which premiered at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. “[It] just might restore your faith in humanity.”
The Berlin competition jury awarded a special Silver Bear to Mr. Bachmann and His Class, praising Speth’s documentary for “showing hope and giving inspiration as how to achieve a positive change…The film shows how far you can go simply with true respect, sincere communication, and with that magic all great teachers possess: sparking the fire of passion in their students by activating their fantasy.”
Films Boutique is handling world sales on the movie.
The Hollywood Reporter‘s European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough spoke to Maria Speth about holding a mirror up to German society, the impact of COVID lockdown on school kids, and why her first cut of the film was 21 hours long.
How did you meet Herr Bachmann?
Maria Speth: We’ve known each other for decades. We live near each other in Berlin. He always used to tell me about this town and this school where he teaches until I said: “OK, I’ve got to see this for myself.” Because it’s pretty unique, this combination of the people who live there and the history of the town. When I finally did go, it really made an impression on me. I think it’s really unique in Germany because this is a small town in the middle of Germany, really provincial. But with this population demographic and this very interesting history. That was the start.
Did you have any expectations going in what sort of story you were going to tell?
No, I left everything open. I saw the school and then began to do research. That took years. The first idea was to do a theater production with the kids but we dropped that. Slowly the idea crystalized around focusing on the sixth-year students, Herr. Bachmann’s class. The concept was just to observe and see what happens. What does a normal school day look like? How does Herr Bachmann interact with these kids? He has a very special, very inspiring approach.
Kids like these, with immigrant or minority backgrounds, get talked about a lot in the German media, but we rarely get a chance to really spend time with them. What do you think your film can add to these discussions?
Right now people are talking a lot about schools in connection to the coronavirus pandemic and re-opening schools. I think what the film does show is how extraordinarily important schools are as a meeting place. Their purpose isn’t just to impart knowledge but to be a social space. Whatever type of school, whatever type of kids we are talking about, having the school as a social space for children is, I think, extremely important for their development.
That’s a focus in this film because Herr Bachmann basically turns his classroom into a kind of living room where — and I think this is extremely important — the kids feel at home. It’s a place of trust, of safety, where they are seen and where they can show who they are as individuals, as people. That’s what the film is about.
That was a thread throughout, also in the editing, that we should meet the people in this film as people, without prejudice, without taboos, but simply as people. Many have only been in Germany a short time and don’t really speak the language yet. Others are the second- or third-generation living in this town. But for all of them, Herr Bachmann’s classroom is a sort of home. During the shoot, I called it the living room. Because that’s what it is.
You shot the film before the pandemic. Has the experience of the Coronavirus and the school lockdown changed the way you see the movie and these kids?
Watching them, it’s clear that these kids are the ones that are particularly hard hit in times like now, during the pandemic. It’s obvious that they won’t be able to keep up with homeschooling, either because they don’t have a computer at home, or because their parents don’t speak German.
But the film also shows their need, beyond education, to have a place where they can meet and be together, where they can talk about their lives. For children, especially those who weren’t born here or who are second- or third-generation immigrants, it’s important to have this place for them. How otherwise will they develop an identity as German citizens? Where will they even speak German if not in school?
Herr Bachmann’s class gives them this forum. He engages them in dialog, or he moderates their discussions. He’s really teaching them a culture of civilized debate. Of listening and letting other people talk. That’s also something that has to be learned, that has to be taught.
What was the actual shoot like?
We spent half a year at the school, from January to June. We went seven times, each time spending a week in the school, basically living in the classroom. That was necessary for the kids to get used to us and open up in front of the camera. We shot 200 hours of footage. It took a long, long time to finish the film. I spent three-and-a-half-years in the editing room. My first cut was 21 hours long! Then I shortened it to “just” 8.5 hours. Even this final version is over three-and-a-half hours.
The film isn’t just a portrait of Germany right now, but also of German history, because of the history of this town, Stadtallendorf.
This town is as much a protagonist in the film for me as the pupils or Herr Bachmann. It was a small village but before the war, the Nazis decided to build a huge munitions factory there and built up the town to supply the factory. Then they brought in slave workers from all over to work in the factory. After the war, the whole thing was just retooled. Some buildings were blown up but the ones that were left were just retooled for other factories — the Fritz Winter iron foundry or the Ferrero chocolate factory — and new immigrants were brought in to work there.
For me, it was wonderful to see the kids when Herr Bachmann shows them a film about the first “guest workers” [immigrants who came to Germany after World War 2] because you could see they didn’t know this history, which is their own history. Some were pointing at the screen: “that’s my uncle!” It was fascinating, and incredibly moving for me, to see them see their own history. Living in Stadtallendorf, they are sort of cut off. Maybe every two years they go on vacation “back home” to their families in Turkey or Morocco. Otherwise, they’re stuck in this little German town. I don’t know how much they really know about Germany or German history.
One of my favorite scenes is when Herr Bachmann explains to the kids where his own name comes from: that the Nazis forced his great-grandmother, who was ethnically Polish, to take on a “germanic” name, as part of a program to eliminate “slavish” names from Germany. It shows how Germany has been a country of immigrants for generations, not just since World War 2. Do you think the film could also change how Germans view their own history?
That would be great. The film is a mirror of German society and German history. I think there is a lot in there and maybe it can offer a different view, or change the audience’s perspective, make people think about their assumptions.
Are you still in contact with Herr Bachmann?
Yes. During the edit, I had to concentrate on the work so I didn’t see him as much, but I think he understood that. He hasn’t seen the film yet. I promised him we’d watch it in the theater when that’s possible again.
We’re going to try to get as many of the kids together and see it together. It’s strange because I shot the film in 2017. The children were all between 12 and 14 years old. Now they’re pretty much grown up. I’m really excited to see them again and to see what they think of the film.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.