However long ago your school days, you can still name your favorite teacher. (Thanks for everything, Dr Sharkey.) Maria Speth’s affectionate and inspiring portrait of an affectionate and inspiring man leaves little doubt that for a vast proportion of the students who’ve passed through the halls of Georg Büchner Comprehensive in the German factory town of Stadtallendorf during the past 17 years, that name will be “Herr Bachmann.”
But as much as the laid-back, woolly-hatted Dieter Bachmann — who looks more like a rock-band roadie than a schoolteacher — is the primary subject of this lengthy but absorbing and illuminating documentary, and collectively, the pupils of class 6b emerge as his rambunctious backing band, “Mr. Bachmann and His Class” also performs a third function. It makes you see the valor of all the individuals working within an education system whose institutions and practices are more usually met with cynicism and suspicion. Even Einstein agreed with the adage that “Education is that which remains, when you forget everything you learned in school.” One can only imagine what that underachieving schlub might have amounted to had his school employed a teacher like Dieter Bachmann.
The airbrakes on municipal buses gasp and sigh. Bakeries open for business. Cars drive through cold streets, the sky still an unfriendly pre-dawn slate. It’s early on a wintry morning, and students are gathering from across the area in Bachmann’s contrastingly cheerful classroom. The 18 or so 12- to 14-year-olds, who hail from nine different countries (Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Sardinia, etc.), many with only rudimentary German, have broad religious, ethnic and national differences. But they are all also just kids, and right now they are tired. One of the first things Bachmann suggests is for everyone to take a “dive” — to rest their heads on their desks for a few minutes and have a little doze.
Bachmann teaches across a lot of subjects, from German to English to math and art. Other subjects, like sociology and the fascinatingly fraught local history of the area with its decades of Gastarbeiter (migrant worker) programs stretching back to the munitions plants during World War II, are taught by apparently equally well-liked colleagues. But Bachmann’s specialization is music, and instruments litter the room, where semi-impromptu jam-sessions sometimes break out.
Occasionally he’ll play a song to get a new point across, with lyrics of his own devising. It could make for a cringey dad moment, but Bachmann’s not trying to be hip with the kids; none of this is some “rip up your textbook!” cool-teacher pose. In fact, partly it’s his unembarrassed uncoolness and his willingness to look a bit silly in front of them that gives the children the confidence to speak up in class, to address their peers and assess each other’s work.
But mostly it’s Bachmann’s individual engagement that bolsters their self-worth, the way he talks across to them rather than down at them and is as honest about his own life as he expects them to be about theirs. He sets tests and assigns grades, of course, but as he hands back the exams he assures them “These grades do not reflect who you are.” The students often choose to spend their lunch breaks eating with him, and feel no hesitation in going for a nap on the classroom day bed.
Crucially, though, he’s no pushover, especially when he suspects one of his charges of unkindness. He issues a calm but insistent challenge to a pupil who offhandedly calls homosexuality “disgusting.” And when another fields a lame excuse for not helping a classmate, Bachmann tells him, “I don’t really believe that, but I’ll treat it as though it was sincere,” a true masterstroke of subtle teacherly shade-casting that the kid absolutely understands as the rebuke it is.
Any of Frederick Wiseman’s recent institutional studies would make a great civics double bill with “Mr. Bachmann,” should you ever feel like setting aside a whole day for such a project. Speth emulates the documentary master’s rhythms, and just when a sequence threatens to run too long, she’ll cut to shots from around Stadtallendorf: the factory gates where many of the parents work; the drab little high street where they shop. These interludes are Speth’s own recesses, giving her film a pressure valve, while also letting DP Reinhold Vorschneider, whose handheld work in the classroom is so flexible and immediate, present some crisp, still, classically composed tableaux.
The length is perhaps a little gratuitous, when a two-and-a-half-hour cut might make these powerful points even more eloquently and emotively. And even at 217 minutes, some areas remain unclear: Those unfamiliar with the German education regulations, for example, might wonder how much freedom the average school offers its teachers to shape a learning environment like Bachmann’s — probably not much — and how much he’d be regarded, within that system, as a renegade.
If he is an outlier, one suspects that would be very satisfying to this genial self-described ex-revolutionary, now 65 and, as a dismaying exchange late on reveals, about to retire. As the kids bid their farewells and clatter down the hallway on the last day of school, we linger with Bachmann, alone for perhaps the first time in the film, in the classroom where he mounted his personal educational revolution for years. It’s a place, for the students, of bright and hopeful beginnings, but now, for their wonderful teacher, the scene of a bittersweet ending. But at least there’s “Mr. Bachmann and His Class” bearing fond, admiring witness to the small acts of pedagogical heroism that happened there, every day.