Berlinale 2021 review: Mr Bachmann and His Class (Maria Speth)

Most of us have had a teacher that we think back on with fondness. That one teacher who made going to school fun and worthwhile beyond all the boring stuff like learning (or so we thought as children). German director Maria Speth creates a warm and intimate portrait of one such teacher and his students in Mr Bachmann and His Class, a documentary with a three-and-a-half hour runtime. That actually works in its favor, since it allows us to deeply connect to this special man and the children to whom he gives life lessons while helping them define their place in the world and their individual identities, against the background of an industrial town with a history of diversity, for better or worse.

Class 6B of the Georg-Büchner-Gesamtschule in the small German town of Stadtallendorf is a group of children in the 12-14 age range in their final year of primary school. After this year they will be split up into different systems befitting their learning abilities. Their home is an industrial town where 25% of its population doesn’t have German citizenship and 70% has an immigration background. About a quarter is Muslim. In the sixties many of their forebearers arrived as so-called ‘guest workers’. Two decades before that there was another kind of ‘guest worker’: forced labor in a Nazi sub-concentration camp. Stadtallendorf has a history with outsiders.

Class 6B thus hails from a large range of backgrounds, with some of the kids having arrived in Germany just six months prior. Nineteen children, nine countries, two religions, and one teacher: Dieter Bachmann, a former revolutionary, folk singer, and sculptor. Also a man in his last year before retirement, but that doesn’t mean there is less passion in his attempts to inspire and challenge his students. Given the many national, religious, and cultural backgrounds of the children, he has to navigate difficult waters at times. How much can a school or a teacher really do in such an environment, and how can it prevent exclusion and marginalization? This is where Speth’s observational ‘fly-on-the-wall’ style is aided immensely by the runtime of the film, as this gives us a chance to see the class, under the guidance of their teacher, grow as a group in which bonds are formed and where a helping hand can come from unexpected friends. It also allows the film to present most of the students as full-fledged individuals with the whole gamut of emotions that their age brings with it, as well as the influence of their backgrounds. The film closely shows how each of them evolves as a person in this important and future-deciding year. As such, Mr Bachmann and His Class is not just a portrait of a somewhat eccentric teacher but also of a young cross-section of the town and of modern German society as a whole.

Dieter Bachmann, however, is at the center of it. This 65-year-old man in baggy clothes and a beanie with his unusual teaching style, who lets his students express themselves through music and shows them how to juggle. And somehow along the way makes them understand that each of them is valuable and that they deserve to have their own place in the world. He builds a personal and emotional bond with each of his students. He can be strict from time to time, as every teacher has to be, but he approaches them with an open mind and on equal ground, not afraid to open up about himself and show his vulnerability in order to get his students to do the same. Speth’s camera carefully registers the clear love he has for ‘his’ children, but also the love of those children for him, even when puberty rears its head and teacher and student clash.

It is hard to put a finger on what makes Mr Bachmann and His Class so great. Is it the raw honesty, the emotional moments of touching humanity, the careful observations that register these children in all their doubts, fears, joy, and stubbornness? Probably a combination of all of the above, which results in a documentary that may be very long, but that you kind of wish would go on even longer just to see where the kids end up, and just as importantly where Dieter Bachmann ends up. The last shot of the film, a close-up of Bachmann’s head after he has just said his final goodbyes to the class, is quietly devastating, because here ends the work of a man who loved what he did. Let Speth’s excellent documentary be a testament to the legacy of this special teacher, and may Ferhan and Aydan, Anastasia and Steffi, Hasan and Rabia and all the rest of them think back on him with fondness, and hopefully the idea that he gave them something valuable: self-worth.