'Sir. Review of Bachmann and his class: learning from the best

The students in Dieter Bachmann’s class are sometimes bored. They’re in sixth grade, so that’s to be expected, though there’s a good ch...

The students in Dieter Bachmann’s class are sometimes bored. They’re in sixth grade, so that’s to be expected, though there’s a good chance these teenagers, watched by the filmmaker Maria Speth during the 2016-17 school year, are less bored than most of their peers, thanks to their energetic and unconventional teacher.

What is certain is that, even at over three and a half hours, the fly-by-night documentary Speth shot of his time in class is the complete opposite of boring.

By its length, the elegance of its editing and the warmth of its curiosity, “Mr. Bachmann” and its class could remind you a film by Frederick Wiseman. The comparison goes no further. Wiseman tends to be interested in how collective, impersonal structures – neighborhoods, organizations, institutions – illuminate individual personalities and relationships. Speth’s attention shifts in the opposite direction.

His film begins with the teacher, whose patience and charisma attract the children and magnetize the viewer. Gradually, a group portrait emerges that is also a remarkably detailed and complex picture of a city and a nation. And more: an intimate and humanist epic.

The town is Stadtallendorf, Germany, about an hour north of Frankfurt. A rural village for most of its history, it was industrialized by the Nazis, who built arms factories and forced labor camps. After World War II, “guest workers”, mostly from Turkey, were recruited for metalworks and other factories. (You will learn these facts and many more during field trips and class discussions.)

Bachmann’s students are mostly children of immigrants – from Bulgaria, Morocco and Azerbaijan, among other countries. Their command of German varies, as does their academic outlook. Part of Bachmann’s job is to decide which secondary path is right for each student, a task he undertakes with clarity, compassion and some reluctance.

A former sculptor and sociology student now in his 60s, usually dressed in a knit beanie and hoodie, Bachmann is aware of the tension between his countercultural impulses and his bureaucratic duties. He administers tests and hands out grades, but also keeps musical instruments and art supplies on hand for jam sessions and creative projects. While his anarchist streak is part of what makes him a benevolent authority figure, you wouldn’t say he’s soft or lenient with his students. Instead, he is honest with them, treating them not as friends or peers, but as people whose right to dignity and respect is absolute.

They test and tease him and can be inconsiderate or cruel to each other. They are children, after all. A handful focus on special attention, almost overshadowing their teacher and contributing to the film’s emotional richness. We don’t learn much about their lives outside of school (or Bachmann’s), but each is a universe of feelings and possibilities, vivid and vulnerable.

And lucky to have crossed paths with Bachmann. The film ends with his retirement after 17 years of teaching, a bittersweet moment that Speth watches with tact and understatement. This is not a heroic drama about idealism in the face of adversity. It’s an acknowledgment of the hard work of learning and the magic of simple decency.

Mr. Bachmann and his class
Unclassified. In German, with subtitles. Duration: 3h37. Watch on Mubi.

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'Sir. Review of Bachmann and his class: learning from the best
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