Mr. Bachmann, the eponymous star of Mr. Bachmann and His Class, is the kind of teacher every student loves to have. If a student does something wrong he doesn’t berate them and make them feel bad about themselves. Rather he’ll find a way to actually locate the source of the problem. As a troublesome student myself, it’s the Bachmanns I remember the most.
Set in the sleepy town of Stadtallendorf in west Germany, Mr. Bachmann and his Class is a wonderful portrait of one man and the unique way that he teaches the students not only about math, grammar and english, but also the kinds of life lessons that only a lifetime of wisdom can bring.
Director Maria Speth allows this film to really take its time, eventually earning every ounce of its forbidding 217 minute runtime. She uses long, long scenes filled with rich combative dialogue, digressing so far from the subject matter that one can forget completely what he was supposed to be teaching in the first place; transporting the viewer back into their favorite classroom memories. It’s more remarkable considering that many of these students, covering Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Turkey, Italy and Brazil, have been in Germany for less than a year and are still struggling with the language.
They are in the last year of primary school and their grades will be the difference between joining a realschule or gymnasium, the latter of which gives them that golden path to university. Bachmann, straddling several different subjects as well as being the class tutor, faces difficult choices in grading, motivation and teaching; balancing his unorthodox approach against bringing out the best of his children.
Looking like Mary Rylance’s take on Jack Black’s Dewey Finn of School of Rock-fame, he sports an AC/DC shirt and loving takes the lead in his unofficial school band, knocking off renditions of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Smoke on the Water”. Yet beneath the “cool teacher” vibe is someone who is still figuring out, in his last year of teaching, the best way to be an educator.
Several students in the class have their own little miniature arc. From a previously shy girl who slowly gains the confidence to talk, to a Bulgarian student who becomes a semi-successful amateur boxer, to a girl who discovers her potential as a singer, to a Muslim girl who faces discrimination from other students for being the only one wearing a hijab, these different stories are really allowed to breathe, investing us in the future of nearly every single student.
In one very touching sequence he mentions that sometimes a man loves a man and a woman loves a woman and that there is nothing wrong with that. Another student believes that it’s disgusting but she cannot actually articulate why. She slowly crushes under the pressure of Bachmann asking her to give actual reasons for her behaviour. (This serious conversation is hilariously diffused when he asks one of the Russian girls. She replies: “I don’t care.”). It’s lessons like these that will linger far longer in the memory than being able to order a coffee in English.
The wider machinations of the school, which might’ve been covered in a Wiseman film, are left thrillingly unexplored, with one shot showing Bachmann at a teacher’s meeting, but only captured from outside the building. What is explored, through lessons, are the historical backgrounds of Germany’s multicultural society, including the millions of gastarbeiters who moved to West Germany from Turkey between the 50s and 70s. As a result, the film acts like a microcosm of German society and the idea of multi-cultural integration as a thing that should be celebrated instead of merely tolerated.
This is brilliantly integrated into the final scene which I won’t ruin here but suggests the infinite beauty of German-Balkan friendship. Germany might still be a country facing many issues of integration — most recently shown by the reaction to the Syrian migrant crisis, including the racist terrorist attack in Hanau — but Mr. Bachmann and His Class manages to show off the best of what Germany (or any country) can be. Both a teacher’s manual and an inspirational, feel-good film, this is a wondrous slow-burn work from Maria Speth that is easily one of the best documentaries of the year.