Winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Maria Speth’s Mr. Bachmann and His Class is one of the year’s most ambitious films. And yet, it is set largely in one classroom. Speth’s 217 minute documentary observes a multi-cultural classroom of elementary school students in Germany, as they learn from their uniquely engaging teacher Mr. Bachmann. Following its recent screening at DOC NYC, Awards Radar spoke with Speth to discuss the process of making this award-winning and heartwarming film.
Shane Slater: As the film shows, Mr. Bachmann isn’t a “magical” teacher who gets straight As for all his students. What drew you to make a film about him?
Maria Speth: I have known Mr. Bachmann privately for several years. Actually, almost like a decade. And the first thing was that Mr. Bachmann started to talk about this town Stadtallendorf, the history of this town. So the first impulse for me to make this movie was the history of this town, which was founded by the Nazis and was the largest weapon production facility in Germany at that time. And they brought forced labor to this town to work in these plants. After the war, it was used for different purposes but they they were still plants and they brought foreign workers to this town after the war.
This town is really a mirror of the immigration movement in Germany. 80% of the people who live there now are migrants or have a migration background. And what made it particularly interesting is that it was really in the middle of the country and not in one of these big cities, or areas where a lot of migrants come together. So that’s what really made me interested in this town. And I thought that was a good starting point to describe this background, by using a school class and Mr. Bachmann. I did a lot of research and Mr. Bachmann has a very interesting and unique teaching style. I thought that was a good starting point for my story
SS: Were you always clear on the observational approach and the length of the film?
MS: It was important for me to show how this multi-cultural class could function. And at first I wasn’t sure about interviewing or observing. But after the first day of filming, it was obvious to me that I was going to do it on the basis of observation. As it turned, it was the right way to take so much time. We had 200 hours of filming. And it took about half a year. We visited the location seven times and we had 30 days of filming in total.
It was surprising to me to find out that we had these 200 hours of footage, but it was necessary because we had to watch and see what was happening, what was going on in the class. We just had to be there. It was important for me that every person found a place in this movie That there was space for every participant. I wanted to film or to describe a microcosm. And not just the teacher, but mostly the students. It was a city with this very interesting background and that’s why it took me three years to really put together this movie where everybody found their space.
SS: How did Mr. Bachmann respond when you first approached him? Did he have any specific desires or expectations for the film?
MS: No, he was very open from the first day. And he sort of was the impetus to carry out this project. It took three years to cut the film and during these three years we had no contact with each other at all. But at the end of this three years, we all met together and he was very happy and so were the kids. We all – the kids, Mr. Bachmann and me – attended a performance and it was a wonderful get-together. And of course, by now the kids were not kids anymore. They were young adults. And it had taken so long to see each other again mostly because of the pandemic.
Our focus was the children. And Mr. Bachmann, he was so involved with his kids that we really completed each other. And we moved freely to the point that the kids really forgot that we were filming them. So that created a very natural environment. And of course, Mr. Bachmann himself had always created this very family-like environment in his classroom, where he didn’t only teach and convey knowledge to the children. He created individual spaces for the kids, he taught music, he had conversations with them. So the kids could approach him with their personal, private problems. So it was a very special ambience. And that’s what we tried to capture in our film.
SS: The film also includes some other teachers. How did you get them involved, and did you get a sense that their teaching style was influenced by Mr. Bachmann?
MS: Mr. Bachmann plays a very significant part in this school with his very unique style. And this other Turkish teacher, he was Mr. Bachmann’s assistant and at the same time, he had been a student at the same school. So we could show several generations of teachers, so we could look at both sides. And during my research, I talked a lot with him and had many interviews because of this very unique situation of him having been a student and now being a teacher at the same school.
SS: There’s one small moment that really touched me, when one of the students asks if Mr. Bachmann’s whole family is so nice. Could you speak to whether this hints to a greater tension in that society, for his niceness to stand out like that?
MS: I think all people want to be noticed. For the student Hassan, it was so important that he had this very warm and personal relationship with Mr. Bachmann. And that Mr. Bachmann taught him music and that Hassan was very good. He had great success. And it was very important that he had these personal conversations with the teacher. Kids want to be seen, they want to be noticed. Mr. Bachmann was perfect in the way he approached the kids. He had no prejudice, he had no preconceived opinions. He was at eye level with them. And I think that created a very comfortable environment for the children in this classroom.
SS: You spent so much time on this film about a teacher. Did you learn anything that you would take away from this whole experience?
MS: I was overwhelmed by the kids and their openness and their cheerfulness and warmth. They were filled with love and many of them were living in quite difficult situations. They didn’t have it easy but it was so obvious how much feeling and love they had.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]