To Sir, with Love: Maria Speth’s Mr. Bachmann and His Class

By Michael Sicinski

Like all of Maria Speth’s films, Mr. Bachmann and His Class is a sharply observed portrait of people negotiating their way through uncertain, liminal spaces. At the same time, the documentary marks a sharp turn in Speth’s filmmaking approach, something all the more notable given the remarkable consistency of her first four films. The Days Between (2001), Madonnas (2007), Daughters (2014), and the documentary 9 Lives (2011) were all characterized by Speth’s intensive focus on individuals (mostly young women) living on the margins of contemporary German society who actively flout the rules of bourgeois decorum as well as sexist assumptions about how “proper” women ought to behave.

By contrast, Speth’s new film finds her practically reinventing her approach to cinema. Clocking in at 217 minutes, Mr. Bachmann is as capacious as Speth’s previous films were jagged and economical; it has frequently been likened to the work of Frederick Wiseman, and naturally those making the comparison intend to pay Mr. Bachmann the highest of compliments by doing so. However, calling Mr. Bachmann Wisemanesque occludes as much as it reveals, both formally and thematically. And upon closer inspection this nearly four-hour document, observing a year in the life of a middle-school class at the Georg Büchner Schule in Stadtallendorf, bears unmistakable traces of Speth’s earlier artistic concerns.

The films of the Berlin School can be quite divergent in their themes and styles; in fact, it’s often easier to define a given film as “Berlin School” less by what it does than by what it doesn’t do. Nevertheless, we can say that, with some notable exceptions, they tend to be present-tense films rather than period pieces, and often prefer opacity of character to the psychological interiority favoured by mainstream art cinema. On the basis of these tendencies alone, Speth’s films would appear to be Berlin School works, but one could just as easily point to Speth’s significant differences from her apparent colleagues. Unlike many Berlin School filmmakers, who studied at the DFFB, Speth got her training in Babelsberg, at the Konrad Wolf University of Film and Television, working specifically with genre director Rudolf Thome. Furthermore, Speth’s debut was more clearly influenced by Asian art cinema than by Harun Farocki or Dominik Graf. The Days Between tells the story of Lynn (Sabine Timoteo), an aimless 22-year-old who lives with her older brother and his family, despite wanting no part of family life. She works part-time at a university dining hall, where she meets Koji (Hiroki Mano), a Japanese student working on his German. Paradoxically, the language barrier serves to strengthen the bond between the two: Lynn actively resents the idea that her loved ones want to rely on her (or just know that she’s not dead or in jail), and in Koji she finds someone with whom she can simply prowl the empty streets.

The Days Between won a Tiger award at Rotterdam, and at that time many reviews compared its visual textures to those of Tsai Ming-liang and Wong Kar-wai. This immediately set Speth apart from her peers: where other directors such as Christian Petzold, Maren Ade, and Ulrich Köhler have all been concerned with alienation, they have mostly chosen to convey that mood using empty spaces, anonymous façades, or antiseptic, post-Bauhaus interiors. From this perspective, The Days Between’s dusky ambiance (courtesy of ace DP Reinhold Vorschneider, shifting away from his usual approach to channel Christopher Doyle and Anthony Dod Mantle) is practically the polar opposite of the “official” Berlin School aesthetic.

Although none of Speth’s other features have replicated the neon-tinged atmosphere of The Days Between, they have certainly continued that film’s thematic concerns. Her second and third features both centre on precarious characters who bear a strong family resemblance to Lynn. Madonnas stars Sandra Hüller as Rita, a young mother whose inability to form lasting relationships seems less like an opting for freedom (as Lynn’s actions arguably are) than a personality disorder. Having given birth to five children over 14 years, all by different fathers, Rita blames her inability to love and be loved on her mother (Susanne Lothar), claiming that she was cold to Rita growing up. But when Rita ends up going to prison, she unloads her kids on her mom, who at least seems concerned with their basic welfare.

There is a bracing matter-of-factness to Madonnas. Rita has no compunction about lying, stealing, and even becoming physically abusive when under stress. Even after she pairs up with Marc (Coleman Swinton), an American GI who offers a hope for stability, by “ordinary” (i.e., bourgeois) standards, Rita remains practically feral: she works to undermine any human connection that might in some way demand consistency, or even basic decency. While most of Rita’s kids accept their circumstances as a given, Fanny (Luisa Sappelt) is old enough to know that something is wrong. At one point in the film, she pleads with her mother, “Please don’t have any more children.” (Rita dismisses Fanny, asserting that she is the mommy and will make the decisions.)

After making two films exploring the unstable psyches of young women on the margins, Speth reunited with Vorschneider for 9 Lives, a documentary comprised of interviews with Berlin street kids, most of them living in clusters around Bahnhof Zoo or Alexanderplatz. Produced by Speth’s new company Madonnen Films, 9 Lives offers the opportunity to hear from individuals who, although not exactly akin to the protagonists of The Days Between and Madonnas, share their rejection of middle-class mores and gender definitions. Appearing against a stark white background, these young people describe their lives on the street, and in several cases explain exactly why they fled their families. Krümel, for example, suffered abuse at the hands of his uncle, and his mother refused to believe it was happening. Sunny describes the harshness of life on the street (the cycles of drug addiction and sex work), but still maintains that she had to flee the parents who rejected her. Za, a cellist who won numerous youth competitions, simply found acceptance in the punk scene, finding it preferable to the constant fighting at home. 9 Lives allows these kids the space to articulate their own identities, hopes, and dreams, and in some cases to proudly display their new, alternative families.

After undertaking this rather direct anthropological research, Speth directed her third fictional feature and most psychologically obdurate film, Daughters, which shrouds its two main characters in complementary zones of utter unknowability. Agnes (Corinna Kirchhoff) is a mother who has come to Berlin from Hesse looking for Lydia, her missing daughter, who ran away from home some time ago; we never find out precisely why, and, although Agnes’ behaviour seems to suggest that Lydia is around the same age as the runaways in 9 Lives, we don’t know for sure. Following an auto-pedestrian accident, Agnes is forced to contend with Ines (Kathleen Morgeneyer), a dishevelled young artist and hustler who demands that Agnes give her a place to stay. Although Ines is technically between homes, it’s clear that she is merely couch-surfing between extended stints on the street. As Agnes and Ines learn more about each other, they begin using one another in their own distinct ways: Ines demands money and shelter from Agnes, playing on her bourgeois guilt; Agnes, meanwhile, seems to think that if she can “save” Ines, it might fill the hole in her heart left by Lydia’s disappearance.

In certain respects, Daughters is the Speth film that most resembles the formal and thematic elements commonly associated with the Berlin School. Alternating between Agnes’ disorienting experience of Berlin (mostly seen through car windows) and extended sequences in a drab but well-appointed hotel room, Daughters is situated in “non-places” that reflect the social and emotional dislocation of its protagonists. And truthfully, it is Speth’s most schematic, least surprising work, calling to mind other films about women, subjectivity, and chance like Petzold’s Ghosts (2005) and Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008) while lacking those films’ intellectual and stylistic frissons.

It took seven years for Speth to return with Mr. Bachmann and His Class. Once again, she collaborated with Vorschneider, who is now credited with having co-written the film as well as contributing to its overall structure and organization. Neither as resplendent as The Days Between nor as austere as Madonnas or 9 Lives, Mr. Bachmann alternates between sturdy but intimate scenes inside the classroom and broad establishing shots of Stadtallendorf, its factories, low-income housing, and overall atmosphere. This alternation between a bounded ecosystem and the exploration of its place within a broader socioeconomic landscape most likely accounts for the many Wiseman comparisons, although one could perhaps as easily parallel Speth’s film with the work of Nicolas Philibert (especially his 2002 grade-school documentary Être et avoir).

But these surface resemblances are a bit deceiving. For one thing, Speth and Vorschneider have chosen to situate their inquiry into education within a narrow sphere of influence: that of the affable, charismatic middle-school teacher Dieter Bachmann. Over the course of the film’s expansive running time, we do see other instructors, particularly a well-liked Turkish-German woman named Ms. Bal (who is young and attractive, and it’s suggested that a few of the boys have a crush on her), and there are notable sequences that take place far from Bachmann’s classroom: at roughly the midpoint of the film, Bachmann and the students go on a field trip to the municipal museum of Stadtallendorf, which openly examines the town’s Nazi history, and, in the final half-hour, the children go to a camp in the countryside, where they are exposed not only to nature but also to other adults.

Still, the bulk of Mr. Bachmann takes place in Bachmann’s classroom at the Büchner School, where Speth is most interested in the rapport that these students develop with their teacher. Compared to Wiseman’s High School (1968), Mr. Bachmann absolutely privileges charismatic over institutional authority, and in its concern with intra-student culture and the broader lives of the young people it observes, Speth’s film has more in common with Warrendale (1966), Allan King’s classic vérité profile of a school for emotionally disturbed children in Ontario. The students of Bachmann’s class are a diverse bunch, a cross-section of this industrial town: while there may be a couple who are ethnically Germanic, the vast majority are the children of immigrants, including many of Turkish extraction as well as first- and second-generation Germans from Bulgaria, Russia, Kazakhstan, and other Eastern European nations. Among Bachmann’s many tasks as a teacher is to help his students improve their German reading and writing skills. (They are also learning English, but the German lessons are the predominant focus of the film.)

An old left-winger with anarchist leanings, Bachmann spends much of his time inculcating his students with a sense of the classroom as a community, one with basic rules and responsibilities. In the opening scene, the students file into the room as the day begins, only for Bachmann to send them out for being too noisy: they must exit the room and “try again,” re-entering in silence. Most of us remember such exercises from grade school, but here they serve a slightly different purpose: Bachmann is coaching the kids on liberal ideals of citizenship and common respect. There is a casual, easygoing attitude in Bachmann’s class, and although the instructor rarely if ever states it outright, he represents benevolent authority, and by extension the values of Western liberal democracy. He takes care to ensure that all viewpoints are heard, that students listen to and encourage each other, and that he himself remains open to suggestions and criticism.

On its surface, Mr. Bachmann and His Class represents a kind of ideal for public education, a student-centred method that disguises hard lessons in free-form music and art sessions, making work and play co-extensive. At the same time, Speth shows that Bachmann is far from perfect: by allowing us to spend an entire year with this class, we observe subtle gestures of control and paternalism that would otherwise be hidden by the teacher’s generosity and affability. (This is why the reviews that have criticized the length of Mr. Bachmann, calling it baggy or indulgent, could not be further from the truth.) For example, the organization of the film strongly implies that Bachmann plays favourites. Bulgarian student Hasan, who is learning the guitar and takes boxing lessons on the weekend, is someone whose outspoken nature and sardonic wit are openly encouraged by the instructor; Bachmann also shows a particular fondness for three Turkish girls, the reserved but intelligent Ilknur, combative Stefi, and sullen Ferhan. By contrast, Bachmann seems irked by Jamie, a Romanian boy who frequently calls his teacher out when he finds lessons too unstructured.

At times, Bachmann behaves in a manner that would certainly be considered crossing the line in North American schools. During lunch, he remarks that when Ilknur borrows Ferhan’s head scarf, she looks “five years older,” and at another point tells Ilknur and Stefi that they are blossoming into beautiful women. And at a key moment during the third hour, Bachmann provides a lesson in the form of a ballad about two young men, Jakob and Anton, who fall in love and are killed for being gay. This prompts a discussion with the kids about the morality of queerness, with certain kids arguing that same-sex love is unacceptable. Hasan is clearly uncomfortable, asking to leave the room, while Stefi is more forthright, arguing “that isn’t normal love.”

This is one of the most compelling moments in Mr. Bachmann, in part because it challenges us to decide what the purpose of liberal education actually is. Bachmann is not just arguing for tolerance: he insists that same-sex love is the same as heterosexuality, and that the students who believe otherwise are flat wrong. When the discussion doesn’t go the way he wants it, Bachmann makes the stakes strangely personal, asking Stefi if she ever thought she could fall in love with a girl, offering her classmates Ferhan and Rabia as examples. It seems that this is counterproductive, since Bachmann is explicitly aligning the hypothetical gay identity of young people with overt sexual desire, something the presumption of heterosexuality rarely does. And through it all, there’s a subtext that Bachmann is working to disabuse these mostly Muslim children of their prejudices—trying to make them more appropriately “German.” Near the end of the film, when the kids are at camp and a couple of them start conversing in Turkish, Bachmann tells them, almost as an aside, “You’re in Germany. Speak German.” Here, his job (teaching the language to second-generation immigrants) suddenly devolves into overt criticism.

By identifying these crisis points in Mr. Bachmann, in no way do I mean to refute the clear evidence onscreen that Dieter Bachmann is a kind, supportive teacher who has a strong camaraderie with his students. Most of them love the class, and they are clearly sad when the school year is over. But with these moments, it seems to me that Speth has found a very different way of articulating the social concerns of her first four films. In those works, Speth asked us to engage with people in their late teens and early twenties, already disillusioned with the system, choosing to reject it before it can reject them. With Mr. Bachmann, she is beginning her observation much earlier, considering the institutional disciplining of young Germans in what is arguably a best-case scenario. Their teachers meet them where they are, show them kindness and support, and try to consider them holistically, rather than as lines on a grade sheet. Bachmann himself dismisses the importance of grades (“This is not who you are, it’s just a snapshot”), while also admitting that he cannot give good grades for poor work. And yet even within this broadly accepting classroom community, Speth still finds racist and sexist microaggressions, benevolent paternalism, and traces of cultural judgment. It is perhaps notable that Mr. Bachmann profiles the man and his students in Bachmann’s final year before retirement, as the film shows us the sun setting on a career informed by the liberal Western tradition, with all its generosity and shortcomings. Speth leaves us with the vital question: when Bachmann is gone, who will replace him? Nothing less than Germany’s future hangs in the balance.