Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 08, 2022 4:31 pm 
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Film about a small-town German 6th grade class of immigrant kids seems too long, but then you don't want it to end

Mr. Bachmann and His Class reminded me of the Belfast headmaster depicted in Young Plato. Kevin Mc Arevey in conflict resolution keeps it firm, but light. Herr Bachmann, who's different, because we see him mostly sitting in a classroom, and his class is as diverse as the Belfast school's is uniform, has a similarly firm and confident way of approaching his young charges; but his tone is on a lower register. Perhaps he's sad because he's retiring.

And that brings to mind another documentary, Nicolas Philibert's 2002 To Be and To Have/Être et avoir, also about a teacher on the brink of retirement, but with a one-room school of rural kids age 4-11, which I reviewed in a reserved way but lingers on as easily one of the greatest films about schoolteaching I've ever seen. Together with Nathaniel Kahn's 2003 search for his father My Architect, it's one of a tiny handful of my favorite docs of the last 25 years.

But Mr. Bachmann isn't in this category also because at over three hours, it seems not so much a documentary feature as a fragment of a mini-series. One understands the length, but does not condone it. Editing can shape a film artistically and clarify its meaning for the audience.

One can sympathize, of course. Herr Bachmann has spent hundreds of hours with the class: how can all that time be captured in 90 minutes? It's not a big class but they represent 12 or 13 countries, including Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Azerbaijan and Morocco, and they're adorable. Also well behaved. This is Europe, not America, they wear low-keyed clothes eschewing the latest hip hop fashions and they don't engage in self-indulgent shout-fests. It takes a while to get to know them. Unlike To Be and To Have, the film doesn't show us what any of their home lives are like.

Mr. Bachmann, like those other two teachers, remains a bit of a mystery, but he goes into more detail than they in a chat with a colleague about how he entered teaching (as a latecomer, originally a sculptor and sociology student forced into teaching by a need to pay the bills), and another with the student, Hassan, about how his parents worked all the time and had alcohol problems so he stayed away and played soccer. Now he's bohemian in spirit, with a whole wardrobe of knit caps and hooded sweatshirts, jocular and artistic. As A.O. Scott says in a recent NYTimes review, Bachmann is a somewhat unorthodox teacher whose "anarchist streak" makes him "a benevolent authority figure," but he is no less the disciplinarian ("Herr" Bachmann, after all), not "soft or lenient" or treating the kids "as friends or peers" but rather "as people whose entitlement to dignity and respect is absolute." At this age level striking such a subtle balance is one of the keys to being a great teacher.

What sets him apart is that while Bachmann teaches various subjects, he's also and most appealingly for the kids, a musician, singer and guitarist; and sometimes his classroom morphs into an art or rehearsal studio, with this well-endowed German school providing microphone, amplifiers and speakers, and various instruments. There is also a couch in the room. When the whole class goes on a holiday trip, Hassan gets a birthday celebration and is given a guitar as a present - how does Herr B. manage that?

The class becomes like a family, and even a very shy boy seems at home. Rabbia, who wanted to leave, has now fought with her family to keep them from moving away. She is not the first or only student to bloom, though the subtitles show us that German language skills of some have a way to go. There are other teachers of the class. Miss Bal is a woman of Turkish origin though she's been in Germany for 30 years. She may understand the class even better in Bachmann (but he shares their poor, working class origins). She gets pregnant and will be gone for those who come back to the 7th grade. They kiss and hug her saying goodbye.

Bachmann obviously likes his students and they like him. But though he professes to hate grading and get upset by it, he grades with a German ruthlessness. You see the logic of that. He has to decide where each student is going next: stay at this level, go on to secondary school (Realschule), or enter high school (Gymnasium). Because they are immigrant kids at various levels of learning German as well as levels of academic ability, Bachmann would not be doing a favor in sending a boy or girl to a class they're not ready for, to flounder or be sent back.

This school is in the town of Stadtallendorf an hour north of Frankfort. Once rural it was made industrial by the Nazis as the site of forced labor camps producing munitions under conditions dangerous as well as cruel. After the war the factories were repurposed and "Guest Workers," many Turkish, were brought in - giving a chilling cast to the Gastarbeiters concept. The kids are taught about this history in film, field trip, and lecture.

This school is free of some constraints of American ones. It's okay for teachers to touch or hug students. Bachmann talks and sings songs that introduce swear words or sexual references. He sings a song that's a ballad of a tragic gay love. One might question his having Ferhan, a big, sad veiled girl having trouble with German, to read a rather unclear story she has written about cats and dogs aloud to the class, and then to discuss its pros and cons at length with students. (But despite how it looks, this could have built Ferhan's confidence.)

Mr. Bachmann and His Class/Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse, 3h 37m, has had a rich festival life, with 26 listings on IMDb. It technically debuted at Hong Kong Apr. 5, 2021, but importantly at the Berlinale Jun. 17 it won director Maria Speth the Competition Audience Award and Silver Bear Jury Prize with a Golden Bear nomination. Its US fest debut was DOC NYC Nov. 10, 2021. It released Sept. 17, 2021 in Germany, and the week of Feb. 21, 2022 in the US. Screened for this review as part of the SanfFrancisco Mar. 11-17 Berlin and Beyond festival. It is available streaming on MUBI. Metacritic rating: 92%.

UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
March 16, 2022
7:00 pm



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