Films like Maria Speth’s documentary get short shrift at film festivals. Many critics on a tight schedule, champing at the bit and ready to race off to the next screening, balk at the 217-minute running time. And to be honest, most of us when scrolling through our streaming services would be put off by nearly four hours of sitting in a classroom with Herr Bachmann and company. This is a shame, for Mr Bachmann and His Class is not a film to be overlooked or viewed halfway.
Speth starts the film on a dark wintry morning in Stadtallendorf as kids are heading to school on the bus. This small industrial town has a large blue-collar immigrant population and a sordid past of mistreating foreign workers under the Third Reich. This is something Speth touches on fairly briefly considering that hefty running time, but this glimpse into the town’s past helps both the viewer and the schoolchildren to understand the context of how these children and their families came to be in such a place as well as the dark history of racism in their new home country.
But let’s get back to those kids heading to class. This group of 12-14-year-olds are a mixed bag of Turks, Bulgarians, Italians, Russians, Transylvanians… and they are all grouped together under the guidance of their teacher, Herr Bachmann, who is tasked with preparing them for their middle-school exams, the results of which will determine their future due to Germany’s complex high school structure. Yet Herr Bachmann is no ordinary teacher. Clad in a beanie to cover his bald head and an AC/DC t-shirt, the prof is as wont to swear and sing and strum on his guitar as he is to teach German grammar or fractions. He is also a sympathetic and nurturing teacher, guiding individual students to become more confidant and happy while creating a tight-knit group that will always look out for each other. And while Herr Bachmann might like the sound of his singing voice a little too much, his delicate care of these often-fragile wards is incredibly moving and inspiring, bringing to mind great fictional teachers such as Mr Chips or Robin Williams’s John Keating. Luckily for this class, Herr Bachmann is the real deal.
The children are wonderful; both ordinary and extraordinary, they study, muck about, share their dreams – ‘I want to be a singer. Or a doctor.’ – and blossom as the school year progresses. We see them acting as interpreters for their parents, consoling a grieving companion, fooling about and all the myriad other things kids get up to, yet with the added challenge of looming exams in a language still new to them. A few scenes seem a little contrived, but on the whole the film flows naturally towards the final day of school. It’s an emotional ride and the viewer feels invested in the kids and is rooting for their success.
Obviously, with a film this long, parallels are going to be made with the works of Frederick Wiseman. However, Wiseman often gives a broader, more impersonal look at an institution, (though often with equally affecting results), whereas Speth’s focus is almost entirely on the classroom. She has little time for all the teachers’ meetings and administrative wrangles behind the scenes. Her gaze is unwaveringly on the marvellous Mr Bachmann, a teaching hero, and his wards, who are no less heroic in their pursuit of an education and a bright future. Teachers like Bachmann and students like his deserve 217 minutes of our time.