“IF YOU WERE born in Morocco, but only lived there for two years, why do you still consider it your homeland?” This and other myriad, somewhat intrusive and philosophically complex questions put to adolescents are central to Maria Speth’s immersive documentary, Mr Bachmann and his Class, which will be available online and without cost, as part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, which runs from 14 until 24 October 2021. Bookings open on 13 October.
A little like a mash-up between Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) — because of its immersive focus — and Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) — because of its plotless, effectively moral-less continuity — the work is an over three-hour long experience in the classroom of pre-high school students in the German hinterland town of Stadtallendorf, in North Hesse. The teacher is one Dieter Bachmann and the discourse is an unconventional, hippie-evocative one, that brings the ethos of music into an understanding of relationships, heart and soul into why knowing German is important, and above all, a sense of immense compassion; the kind that can give shy youngsters a place to call home.
But like any dinkum immersive documentary, these are not trained performers on any level. And while the film’s press release is at pains to comment on how the project offered the youngsters in question the chance to “be stars”, there is an element to this film which feels irresponsibly unsettling. And that is the security of these children.
Our world has become so carefully focused on how minors are used and abused by social media and technology. From the theatre industry to the media: children are, these days, very gingerly hidden behind anonymity. And the horror stories abound. Here you get a detailed focus on a class of children for a long period of time. You would recognise these children in the street after watching this film.
It’s a difficult to watch production because the footage feels very raw and as an entity, it doesn’t sidestep the monotony of a day-to-day classroom environment or the intrusiveness of the focus, particularly on the parents, who feature in the film too. Would you, as a parent, wish it to be internationally known that you are moving to another city/town/country because you cannot keep body and soul together? Because you cannot afford to keep your child in a given school?
The film is structured like a shopping list, where the teacher says x and then the next day he says y, challenging the children in a dialogue that lacks editorial presence and engagement, on the filmmaker’s side. There are some beautiful filmic moments by way of interludes, and a foray into the history of the town, which shot to notoriety during the Second World War because of the Nazi arms factories it contains, where many men and women from Eastern Europe were mandated to make bombs and bullets, but these do not save this otherwise well-intentioned work or give it a sense of watchability.
Above all, it’s about the multicultural splay of values in contemporary Europe. These children originate from nine different countries – from Turkey to Bulgaria – and it touches on the complicated and embarrassing struggles faced by them and their parents in a world which condemns immigrants, either directly or from under the proverbial table. It’s a life-affirming piece of work, but reflects a perplexing decision in the curatorial make up of this year’s film festival. The story it tells is open-ended. You emerge from watching it, blunted and feeling sullied because you were thrust into strangers’ narratives without a real reason to be there. If you’re a film festival pundit, this one may rank low in your experience.
Mr Bachmann and his Class is directed and produced by Maria Speth. Written by Maria Speth and Reinhold Vorschneider, it and features creative input by Reinhold Vorschneider (cinematography) and Maria Speth (editing). In German with English subtitles, it is part of the 8th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 14-24 October 2021. Bookings open on 13 October.