In “Mr. Bachmann and His Class,” one classroom becomes a portal to the world at large. In director Maria Speth’s sprawling, inspirational second documentary, the filmmaker presents about six months in the academic life of one of her personal friends, 64-year-old Dieter Bachmann, who teaches a primary school class for immigrant children in a mid-sized German town. On display are mild culture clashes, linguistic barriers, inquiries into religious differences, debates about values and ethics, and many, many musical performances. Among the dozen or so 12-to-14-year-old students he teaches, a mini-society has formed, with the promise of greater understanding for all in the future. This is one of the most hopeful movies you’re likely to see anytime soon.
When we first meet the aforementioned Mr. Bachmann, he’s wearing an AC/DC shirt. The “School of Rock” vibes continue from there, as it’s quickly clear that he greatly values opportunities to encourage his students to perform music themselves. The long, immersive scenes allow viewers to become a part of the classroom, living through the school day along with the disciples.
In part, that’s because Speth’s documentary can feel almost as long as a school day: At three hours and 37 minutes, it’s a daunting plunge, but not an unprecedented one. With her work here, Speth suggests she could be the natural heir to Frederick Wiseman, the nonagenarian American documentarian who directs fly-on-the-wall portraits of individual institutions — and does so with epic running times.
Whether making films about a hospital for the mentally ill (“Titicut Follies”), or about the New York Public Library (“Ex Libris”), or London’s National Gallery (“National Gallery”), or a nude cabaret in Paris (“Crazy Horse”), Wiseman’s work utilizes time as both canvas and subject. This style of filmmaking mandates a need to experience the rhythms of a place unmediated by rapid edits or a distracting plot. Life itself usually shuns a three-act structure, so why should a documentarian force one into the frame?
Speth has picked up that gauntlet and found drama in just about as tiny a space as Wiseman ever did: Mr. Bachmann’s classroom, surely no more than 20 feet by 20 feet. Her camera sits back and, except for the slightest reframings, barely moves. There’s no evidence of lighting equipment or more than one camera operator, and one wonders if mics were simply placed around the room or in students’ desks so as to avoid an obtrusive boom. The kids never once act like they’re on camera. There are no talking heads or moments of direct address.
All of which leads to a captivating experience: You come to know most of the students well enough to remember each of their names and personalities by the end. There’s Jaime, a Transylvanian German, whose skill in the German language causes him to resent some of his peers who are still just starting to speak it; Hasan, who loves music so much, Mr. Bachmann actually gives him a guitar; Ferhan, one of several Muslim students, but the only one who chooses to wear hijab; Rabia, who passionately defends the right of people to love whoever they choose when a couple of her classmates say they are “disgusted” by same-sex relationships.
There are flashes of genuine emotion: When one girl talks about how sad she is her grandfather’s no longer with her, then puts her head down on her lunchbox in sadness, Mr. Bachmann says, “It’s okay, you can comfort her,” and a few other girls promptly come over and give her a group hug. Moments like these are enhanced by their unifying feel, since these kids come from all over: Morocco, Bulgaria, Russia, and Turkey, from where there’s been significant migration into Germany since the 1960s.
Mr. Bachmann’s primary objective here is to bring up these students’ facility with German and English to the point that they can be placed in specific tracks at a nearby high school. For him, deepening their language skills goes hand-in-hand with preparing them for many facets of life, and he seems to feel that getting them to do things, such as learning to bake and cook, can be as effective a way for the kids to socialize and improve their verbal abilities as any books. This isn’t just experiential learning; it’s holistic, and each of the kids seems to have developed more of their personalities by the end of the school year.
Despite this portrait of a remarkably progressive academic environment, Speth has said that she doesn’t see this film as an advocacy piece for any particular type of education. Nor does she see it as a portrait, in microcosm, of the challenges an ever more diverse Germany faces. She sees the film primarily as a portrait of her friend, of whom we learn relatively little. She’s described him as having been a revolutionary at one time, but no history of radical politics is discussed on screen. All we know is that he got into teaching at a relatively late point in life and has been doing so now for 17 years.
One extended conversation, in which he talks to a friend and fellow teacher, does threaten to dilute the focus of the movie a bit — it’s the one time in the movie it seems as though Bachmann is performing for the camera — and could have been cut. So could a few other scenes. For all its strengths, the movie makes a strong case for shaving 30 minutes off its runtime.
“Mr. Bachmann” works best when he’s speaking off-camera, with the lens trained solely on his rapt kids, as if anticipating their responses. Bachmann doesn’t try to “assimilate” the kids into some monolithic idea of Germany. He engages with and respects their backgrounds, and when he addresses more painful histories, he does so matter-of-factly. He talks about how the town where they all live, Stadtallendorf, was once the leading arms manufacturing production center of the Third Reich, and takes them on a tour of a local museum dedicated to exposing this dark history. The kids’ parents migrated to Germany seeking employment, as there grew to be a demand from German manufacturers for cheaper foreign labor. During the 1940s, foreign laborers, mostly from Eastern Europe, were brought to Stadtallendorf by the Nazis as a slave workforce instead.
Bachmann himself talks about how he got his family name. His grandparents, Germans living in East Prussia, today part of Poland, were actually named Kowalski. The Nazis demanded in the late 1930s that any Germans with Polish surnames adopt new German names instead. He recounts that when his grandmother couldn’t pick a new name fast enough, the Nazi in charge said, “I have no time for this. Your name will be Bachmann.”
Going from that history to this nearly idyllic vision of multicultural understanding in not even quite eight decades is an extraordinary achievement. The movie’s vérité approach may leave itself open to interpretation, but it’s hard not to feel we’re seeing the first rays of a better world about to dawn.
“Mr. Bachmann and His Class” premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.