Film Review: Mr. Bachmann and His Class


Shot over the course of a school year, Maria Speth’s sixth feature captures the lives of a class of German 14-year-olds. At almost four hours in length, Mr. Bachmann and His Class is long, but its enormous characters and emotions more than fill the space, headed by an astonishingly charismatic and inspiring teacher in Dieter Bachmann.

Many of Mr. Bachmann’s students are immigrants, when they join his class most have poor German language skills and a lot have chaotic lives moving from one school to the next in the middle of the school year. The challenges, academically and socially, are enormous.

Bachmann’s year group is a crucial one: after middle school how the cohort do will determine whether they go to the more academically-inclined high school or a remedial secondary school, and while exam results play some part in the decision, it’s also up to his judgement, the children and their parents. It’s clear from the film’s opening moments, on a frosty winter morning, that Dieter is a deeply humanitarian teacher and cares deeply for the best interests of his students.

In the UK at least, education has over several decades had its humanity bled from it by those obsessed with exam results above all else. One need only to notice Mr. Bachmann’s moth-eaten jumpers, numerous guitars and endless renditions of Bob Dylan to see that he would resist any such attempts to dehumanise German education with every fibre of his being.

So inspiring are his relationships with his students, and so imperfectly charming are the students themselves, that it’s almost hard to believe that Mr. Bachmann is a documentary at all and not an exquisitely-crafted fiction in the vérité style. The catch, I think, is that his classroom is so harmonious and his pupils’ transformations over the course of the year so moving that it really feels to good not to be fictional. Even with a documentary there is construction in the selection of footage, the focus on certain characters and the editing, but even so, there is no faking Dieter’s profound capacity for empathy.

There are of course moments of friction between the teacher and his class, but his ability to to speak to his charges smooths over prejudice, misunderstandings and poor behaviour so effortlessly that it never becomes a real issue in the classroom. Indeed, tiny narratives of conflict, resolution and catharsis happen before us constantly, a year of life piled up in infinitesimal moments of drama. The result is a year for Dieter and his class – 217 minutes for us – go by in a flash.

People that visibly changed and grew together now move on to something else, the classroom is emptied. There is no particularly dramatic ending – no big school production or end of school prom – just another year, another cohort. Dieter has been doing this job for seventeen years: his longest relationship. A moment of reflection and his class are gone.

Christopher Machell