Near the beginning of the new documentary Mr. Bachmann and His Class, the eponymous school teacher finishes another day of work, gets in his car, and drives home. It’s early evening on a snowy winter’s day, and as the sun falls over the horizon his car slips down through an underpass as if it were traversing a portal, or leaving a fairytale. We are never shown much of Bachmann’s life, or much else for that matter, outside of the Georg-Büchner-Gesamtschule in the small industrial town of Stadtallendorf. Indeed, for most intents and purposes in Maria Speth’s patiently observed and deeply heartfelt film, Bachmann is the Georg-Büchner-Gesamtschule. In one of the rare moments we glimpse outside the classroom a colleague frankly admits, “I could never replace you.” We are inclined to agree.
Viewing the film in the context of a fairytale feels fitting. The director and Bachmann have apparently known each other for years, yet he appears here like something plucked from a Roald Dahl story (had the writer spent less time making antisemitic remarks and more time watching School of Rock), all gruff and crotchety but with an unmistakable warmth, a kind and stubbly face, and a booming laugh. Seldom seen without a knitted hat or a well-weathered AC/DC shirt, he inspires a certain awe in his classroom of diverse teenagers (in Stadtallendorf, 70% of the 21,000 inhabitants are of immigrant extraction and around one-quarter are Muslim). Speth, who released her debut in 2001 (this is just her second documentary), had it shot over the course of one school year, mostly in 2017, and has been editing it since. The resulting film is a meaty 217 minutes long yet, as autumn and winter give way to spring and summer, it allows Speth the time to show the true blossoming of their relationships–from shyness and anxiety into a sort of mutual reverence and even love. Bachmann’s unorthodox methods are key and appear to stem from a belief that, for some young people at least, playing in a band or learning to juggle may hold more value than Pythagoras’ theorem. (The instruments that litter the classroom are rarely left idle.) That Bachmann is teaching the introductory class––one that will decide where each student (their ages vary from 12-14, as does their ability to speak German) will land the following year––adds a whole other layer of poignancy.
Speth is not the first director to try something like this (Laurent Cantet famously won the Palme d’Or for The Class in 2008) yet there is a unique energy to her film that comes from both the diverse make-up of the group and their context in the macro political moment in Germany, and the charisma of Bachmann himself. The extroverts hog the limelight (as usual) but they are deserving of it and Speth’s film, like its star, never patronizes or looks down on them. Speth is brilliantly attuned to what might lie behind certain temperaments––like the influence of one of their parents, or why the class’ chief troublemaker acts out as he does. She also crucially devotes a good chunk of time to following a tragically shy student. (Bachmann notes that the girl uses her jacket and head scarf like a shell to retreat into––it is very much a film about the different ways children escape their shells.) The class’ religious and ethnic diversity also provides a strong foundation for a variety of delightfully earnest and provocative discussions on things like relationships and sexuality. There are plenty of laughs but also, of course, moments to trouble the tear-ducts.
Speth films it all with a low-key Wisemanesque rigor, anchoring the storytelling to the classroom but allowing for little excursions: a student’s boxing gym, a historical center (Stadtallendorf was the site of munitions factories during WWII), and a summery class trip later on. By then we know the end is near and Speth captures it wonderfully: the giddy energy of the last day of school mixing with the blunt and bittersweet finality of letting go. Of all the little glimpses in her film’s nearly four hours it may be the one Speth chooses to linger on the least. Like so many childhood moments that feel forever as we live them, to those around us they are simply gone in a flash.
Mr Bachmann and His Class premiered at Berlin International Festival Festival.