‘Mr. Bachmann and His Class’ Review: Learning From the Best

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The students in Dieter Bachmann’s class are sometimes bored. They’re in the sixth grade, so this is to be expected, though there’s a decent chance that these particular adolescents, observed by the filmmaker Maria Speth over the course of the 2016-17 academic year, are less bored than most of their peers, thanks to their energetic and unconventional teacher.

What is certain is that, even at more than three and a half hours, the fly-on-the-wall documentary Speth has culled from her time in the classroom is the opposite of tedious.

By virtue of its length, the elegance of its editing and the warmth of its curiosity, “Mr. Bachmann” and his class might remind you of a Frederick Wiseman film. The comparison only goes so far. Wiseman tends to be interested in how collective and impersonal structures — neighborhoods, organizations, institutions — illuminate individual personalities and relationships. Speth’s attention moves in the opposite direction.

Her film starts with the teacher, whose patience and charisma draws out the children and magnetizes the viewer. Gradually, a group portrait emerges that is also a remarkably detailed and complex picture of a town and a nation. And more than that: an intimate, 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 armaments plants and forced-labor camps. After World War II, “guest workers,” mostly from Turkey, were recruited for metalworks and other factories. (You’ll learn these facts and more on field trips and during class discussions.)

Bachmann’s pupils are mostly the children of immigrants — from Bulgaria, Morocco and Azerbaijan, among other countries. Their proficiency in German varies, as do their academic prospects. Part of Bachmann’s job is to decide which secondary-school track 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 cap and a hooded sweatshirt, 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. Even though his anarchist streak is partly what makes him a benevolent authority figure, you wouldn’t say he’s soft or lenient with his students. Instead, he’s honest with them, treating them not as friends or peers but as people whose entitlement to dignity and respect is absolute.

They test and tease him and can be inconsiderate or cruel with one another. They’re kids, after all. A handful come into special focus, nearly upstaging their teacher and contributing to the emotional richness of the film. We don’t learn much about their lives outside of school (or about Bachmann’s), but each one is a universe of feeling and possibility, 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 observes with tact and understatement. This isn’t a heroic-teacher 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
Not rated. In German, with subtitles. Running time: 3 hours 37 minutes. Watch on Mubi.

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