Herr Bachmann is a balding teacher approaching retirement, working in Stadtallendorf, a small industrial town in Hessen. His school uniform is a casual top and one of several beanie hats. The main problem that his kids have is that German is their second – sometimes third or fourth – language. Some were born here, others moved within the last year, but they’re all supposed to compete with German kids working in their native language.
Herr Bachmann’s teaching method would scare officials who insist on a tight curriculum. There are lots of class discussions, much of them to musical accompaniment. His chosen music seems to be from the late 1960s and early 1970s. He twice treats his class to the tiff from Smoke on the Water, and successfully leads a singalong to Knockin on Heaven’s Door, though when he starts on Jolene, some of them puts their hand over their ears.
Herr Bachmann is also an amateur juggler – which also works as a metaphor for his work. Most of his time is spent holding everyone’s attention while doing his best to attend to each kid’s individual needs. He raises controversial discussions on marriage and homosexuality, and while he doesn’t convince everyone to his humanist viewpoint, he manages to keep control. He’s a sympathetic ear and clearly loved.
Slowly, gradually, we learn a little more about some of the kids. They’re a diverse bunch – from several Eastern European countries, Turkey and North Africa. Both Bachmann and a fellow teacher lead interesting class discussions on identity and belonging. Many kids nod when the teacher – who grew up in Germany with Turkish parents – explains how she never really felt she fully belonged anywhere.
You also learn the troubled history of Stadtallendorf. During the war it was home to a Concentration Camp where mainly Eastern European prisoners were forced to work. Now many of the kids’ fathers are working in the same factory. The working conditions may have slightly improved, but the power relations remain same as they ever were.
I can see a way in which authorities could use the film to bash teachers – if he can do all this, why can’t you? But even here it’s not so simple. Herr Bachmann may be a potential Saint, but he can’t solve everyone’s problem. One girl has an air of permanent sadness. She is quickly offended and often sits with her head on the desk. You get the feeling something serious must be wrong at school, yet for all Herr Bachmann’s attempts to get through to her, she remains largely miserable.
And then there is the problem of what school they go next. At the end of the year, they’re either to go to a Gymnasium, with a slight chance of career success, or a Realschule where they’re effectively put on the scrapheap just as they’re entering their teens. Their fate is almost entirely dependent on the grades awarded by Herr Bachmann and his fellow teachers.
As they are planning to leave each other, Herr Bachmann assures them that these grades are only a piece of paper, they are of no real importance. On one level, he’s right of course, but on another the grades could make the difference to these lively kids making something of their lives or being stuck in a dead end job. Inspirational teachers can only help so much.
You also get the feeling that Herr Bachmann is only able to help these kids to the extent that he does because of other sacrifices. We hear in passing about his ex-wife and kids. We see him driving home, but the film rarely escapes the classroom – nor does he. He’s even rigged up a couch so that he can sleep in the rare occasions when he’s not looking after the kids.
To say that the film is too long is no criticism of any individual part of its content. Virtually no film should be 3 ½ hours, still less a documentary. Yet it keeps you gripped to the end. At a Q&A afterwards, a Berlin teacher displayed envy at the 19-person classes (when I was that age there were over 30 of us) but that’s a minor quibble. A healthy view of the best of Germany’s educational system, which is unlikely to survive without some serious investment in our kids.