Maria Speth’s 217-minute deep-dive documentary won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin film festival; it shows us the life of a German teacher, Dieter Bachmann, and his lively class of 12- and 13-year-olds at a school in Stadtallendorf near Marburg. It is a place that has a footnote in European history for using forced labour to produce munitions during the second world war, with trees planted on the factory roof as camouflage – grisly facts that we see the children learning.
Herr Bachmann presides over a diverse mix of Germans and students from immigrant communities from Turkey, Bulgaria and Russia, and has to teach them all how to get along and how to understand each other’s identities and problems. He himself is a genial, almost hippyish figure who teaches music – electric guitar and drums – as well as sculpture, art, German and maths. He can even teach them to juggle. He is a well-loved guy nearing retirement; at one stage, however, he confesses to feeling despair, back in his 40s, about whether teaching was meaningful for him.
There are many absorbing moments in this very thoughtful and compassionate film. Startlingly, Karl May’s Winnetou, a feature of 20th-century German pop culture, seems to endure: we see a copy in the classroom. But this is a film with more contemporary resonances. Talking to a Turkish boy about the problems he has, Bachmann says: “Wir schaffen das” (“We’ll handle it”) – a phrase used by former chancellor Angela Merkel about welcoming refugees.
A film such as this will inevitably be compared with the great fly-on-the-wall school classic, Être et Avoir, which also made a star of its gentle, sensitive teacher, George Lopez. In one famous scene, Lopez had to make two quarrelling children see the error of their ways; his rural pupils were far younger and less diverse than Bachmann’s but the same moral issue of resolving confrontation is present here. Mr Bachmann has to challenge a certain boy for sexist bullying, a girl for homophobic attitudes, and towards the end deal with a rather serious case of violence. He must find a way of doing so that allows the people involved to concede the point without losing face and without feeling marginalised.
The other points of comparison are Frederick Wiseman’s High School documentaries and Laurent Cantet’s 2008 docudrama Entre les Murs (The Class), in which teacher François Bégaudeau effectively played himself in a movie based on his own book about teaching teens in a tough inner-city school. Speth similarly conveys the eternal poignancy of young people’s faces, upturned to the teacher’s older and more careworn one, as they submit to the traditional classroom power dynamic – maybe indifferent or maybe learning something that will change their lives.
Perhaps a film such as this can only be done at great length so that immersion is possible: almost the movie equivalent of institutionalisation. Without that length, it would not convey the emotional impact of Bachmann’s end-of-term of loneliness. We live through it with him, and them. Yes, it can sometimes be dull – as dull as any school day – but also riveting and quietly passionate.
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