Berlinale 2021: 'Herr Bachmann and His Class' is Inspiring Teaching
by Alex Billington
March 12, 2021
As the world changes, and as society evolves, so must teaching, and so must teachers. But how, exactly, and where is there an example of a teacher that can best educate (and handle) youngsters as they're growing up? This exceptional documentary brings us into the classroom of one extraordinary teacher who offers a near perfect example of how to teach and deal with rowdy adolescents. Mr. Bachmann and His Class, also known as Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse in German, has premiered at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival and is one of the documentary highlights of the fest this year. Directed by German filmmaker Maria Speth, the film runs a grand total of 3 hours and 37 minutes. However, it properly and proudly earns its "Frederick Wiseman from Germany" comparison because it seriously comes close to matching the quality of his films.
Mr. Bachmann and His Class is about a middle school teacher named Dieter Bachmann, better known as Herr Bachmann, who studied in Berlin and eventually moved to this small industrial town of Stadtallendorf, near Frankfurt. After working there for over 20 years, he's finally about to retire and this documentary film beautifully captures his work with his last class. Obviously the filmmakers figured out a way to not only get approval from all of the parents to film their kids for a year, but they had to sift through hundreds of hours of footage to put together a film that has a point. The extensive 3.5-hour length is warranted, though it is a very long film to watch. But there are so many lessons to learn, not only watching him teach kids valuable lessons about life, but even adults can learn how to handle difficult issues, too. And by the end even I was so deeply moved and inspired by Herr Bachman, that I thought about what my own life might be as a teacher.
We all know that "racism is taught", but this is one of the most enthralling examples of how to reverse that teaching, and how to teach in ways to prevent racism. Herr Bachmann is an extraordinary teacher who uses empathy and understanding and connection and honesty to break into the teenage mind and help them become more confident, more intelligent, more compassionate people. As he says in one of the scenes near the end, it's much more meaningful to learn to be honest and stay true to yourself than it is to learn math, as crazy as that seems, he's right. And getting to watch him do that for 3 hours is profoundly inspiring. That's the core of this film. There is a narrative that we can follow with the various students, as he helps each one of them overcome issues, and grow in different ways over the course of a year. He battles everything from racism and sexism, to bullying, to stubbornness and shyness, to the usual youthful disinterest in any school.
It's impossible to watch this film and not think of Frederick Wiseman, but in this case, it's a positive thing to compare them. This doc is Wiseman at his best and worst: because he doesn't know how to cut down his films down anymore to find the best portions. But Maria Speth also captures wonderfully intimate, honest moments, and let's them play out, letting whatever is happening speak for itself. And it's just so engaging to watch. Herr Bachman is not shoving knowledge down their throats, he's opening up what the real person is, allowing that to flourish. The film also represents the future of Germany and the struggles it is having as it evolves into a multi-cultural nation, no longer made up of just German people, but a mix of everyone from all over the world. It's an invaluable investment to sit down and experience education with Herr Bachmann.