• Reviewed from the 2021 Berlinale.

Dieter Bachmann’s family did not always have a German surname. It was foisted upon his worker forebears, who had previously been ‘Kowalskis’, when Polish names were outlawed by the Nazi regime.

Teacher Dieter tells this story to his pupils at Georg Buechner School in Stadtallendorf, who are themselves first or second-generation immigrants to Germany, during the kind of open dialogue about personal experience that he’s made as much a part of the class day as curriculum maths problems. Filmmaker Maria Speth is a longstanding friend of Bachmann’s, and was trusted with two years’ access to his lessons for this unobtrusively patient, profoundly moving documentary.

A woollen beanie and rock T-shirt are the favoured work attire of this unorthodox teacher. His background on the margins of belonging (Dieter also discloses he didn’t like being home as a youngster due to his parents’ alcohol problems) seems key to the remarkable, empathetic affinity he has with his students, who are aged between 12 and 14 and struggling to cast off a sense of being outsiders. As we witness the subtly evolving dynamics of the class relationships, we feel the positive impact of this educator’s holistic methods, according to which emotional wellbeing matters as much as grades. Music is integral in a classroom filled with instruments (Bachmann forms a loose band of the pupils to learn classics from Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door to folk ballads). Having spent 17 years invested in the job (his “longest relationship”, he quips), he is about to retire – a departure we come to feel just as keenly.

Mr. Bachmann and His Class (2021)

In her sprawling, observational examination, there is something of Frederick Wiseman in Speth’s approach, though she is less interested in institutional systems than the drama of human personalities, even while staying acutely aware of the economic and ethnic hierarchies that weigh heavily on the students’ lives. No part of this gradually unfurling film, which runs in excess of three and a half hours, feels unnecessary, as we come to know the pupils, whose diverse origins include Turkey, Kazakhstan and Bulgaria, in their insecurities and hard-won progress. Many don’t speak German at home, and Bachmann encourages the stronger students to assist those struggling to master the language, even as some initially balk at the concept of shared responsibility.

Of course the question of what constitutes a ‘heimat’ (homeland) has an especially fraught and traumatic history in Germany. Stadtallendorf was a secret munitions centre during the Third Reich, using slave labourers, including children, from all Nazi-occupied countries in Europe. After the war, the factories were simply repurposed, and a subtler form of capitalist exploitation adhered to as guest workers were brought over to make confectionery and engines. Manpower was extracted from foreigners’ bodies, even as their very identities were negated. The work of Bachmann’s class could be seen as a kind of regenerative resistance to the town’s historical legacy, as they forge tools to feel at home in themselves, their origins and their society.

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