Over an unhurried three and a half hours in her new documentary, Mr. Bachmann and His Class, director Maria Speth gives us the gift of watching children try to learn, at the same time trying to be teenagers, and at once trying to be German. Some fail, some succeed, others simply fall asleep—or check out. The setting is an elementary school in the central German town of Stadtallendorf, in which the students, much like the town itself, is made up of a diverse mix of national origins, including Turkish, Russian, Italian, and Bulgarian. Their chilled out teacher, a laidback rocker type wearing AC/DC hoodies and a grizzled look, tries to engage the students and their varying degrees of assimilation and language fluency, when they are clearly facing profound social and familial challenges outside of the classroom, at home and in Germany at large.
Reminiscent of the films of Frederick Wiseman but solely dedicated to the classroom and not, per that American’s approach, the administration behind it, and shot vérité-style in colorful widescreen by Reinhold Vorschneider, who generously captures more than one student’s reaction to any given scene, we spend a year with Mr. Bachmann and his kids, who we gradually begin to know and root for. There’s the precocious extrovert who assumes she’s the most beautiful and charming in the room, and gesticulates in frustration over her limited German; the brainy older boy who gets called on for most things, because he is one of the few with the answers; his athletic, but failing, counterpart; the wisecracker at the back; the blossoming introvert; the troubled, insular, and devout girl; and all those discrete ones who remain on the outskirts of the discussion (and the frame), choosing not to stand out and to melt into the tapestry. Layered on all the exquisite observation of teenagerhood, that awkward segue between the ignorant glee of children and the complete self-consciousness of adulthood, and Bachmann’s characteristically unconventional pedagogical approach (it turns out the renegade teacher cliché from the movies is certainly founded in fact), is an acute revelation of the diversity of contemporary Germany’s social and cultural makeup, with all its incumbent flares of tension and ingenuity. Speth finds direct opportunities to address both Stadtallendorf’s history during the Second World War as a munitions producer and hosting the small Münchmühle concentration camp, and the later postwar wave of “guest workers” to West Germany to which one can trace the classroom’s remarkable makeup.
From this diversity, and observing the general struggle of the students to be present in class, let alone succeed, it becomes clear that despite the desire, academic success is hardly the goal here. Rather, through a radical blend of creative approaches, along with a deep compassion and frank public group discussions, Bachmann instead encourages the youths to navigate the precarious terrain of social assimilation and communal participation with self-confidence and open communication. The real measure of accomplishment for these kids is choosing, frequently in extremely difficult situations, to actively engage with their circumstances, as the first step to determining something of their own fate in the world.