Directed by: Maria Speth
Distributed by: MUBI
Written by Michael Clawson
Perceptive and patient, “Mr. Bachmann and His Class” is worth its near four-hour runtime. Directed with care and warmth by German filmmaker Maria Speth, this stimulating and affecting documentary unfolds over the course of several months in an unconventional grade school classroom in Germany. Once the site of Nazi ammunition facilities, labor camps, and migrant expulsions, today, the sleepy factory town of Stadhallendorf (beautifully shot by cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider) is ironically home to more foreigners than Germans. It’s in this town that the scruffy, bohemian schoolteacher Dieter Bachmann (almost always seen in a hoodie and a beanie that stops just above his ears) uses deceptively casual and carefree methods of teaching his students. His classroom has the bookshelves and desks that practically all schools have, but then there are the drum kits and guitars along the wall, which get broken out whenever the American Rock-loving Bachmann decides it’s time for a collective jam session. Though he never describes it as such, music is a kind of common language in Bachmann’s classroom. Some of his students are from Germany, but others hail from elsewhere: the high-spirited Stefi is from Bulgaria, while the sweetly behaved, aspiring boxer Hasan comes from Turkey.
Where Bachmann’s students call home, and what exactly “home” means to them, is something we learn about because Bachmann cares to ask: he’s as interested in learning about his students and the unique hurdles they each face as he is in the students learning the prescribed curriculum. Bachmann appreciates the injustice of Stefi, who has been exposed to the German language for mere months, being held to the same standards as Jamie, whose native tongue is German. Inspiringly, he discusses such matters openly with his students and seeks their thoughts and opinions on living, studying, and working in a multicultural environment. He doesn’t sermonize on tolerance, democratic principles, or how history might inform differences in how each student lives and thinks, but instead gently prods them to scrutinize their own beliefs and prejudices. As a filmmaker, Speth similarly avoids making conclusions on behalf of her audience: with her fly-on-the-wall approach, neither the students nor Bachmann ever address the camera, and there is no narration. Clean and swift editing makes the time go by quickly, and even after nearly four hours, the perfect, heart-stealing final shots leave you wishing the school year had gone on just a little bit longer.
“Mr. Bachmann and His Class” Trailer