DOC NYC 2021 Women Directors: Meet Maria Speth – “Mr. Bachmann and His Class”

Maria Speth is a writer, director, and producer of feature films and documentaries. Her debut feature “The Days Between” premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2001, where it won the VPRO Tiger Award, and her second feature, “Madonnas,” won the Hessian Film Prize in 2007. She received the DEFA Foundation Award at the 2010 International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film for her doc “9 Lives,” which she wrote, directed, produced, and edited. Her feature “Daughters” premiered at the 2014 Berlinale and was released theatrically in Germany.

“Mr. Bachmann and His Class” starts screening at the 2021 DOC NYC Film Festival on November 14. The fest runs from November 10-28.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

MS: The setting is Hesse, Germany — a hilly province, and on the horizon, you see the smoking chimneys of a small industrial town. In between the old industrial buildings with pines, birches, and scrub on the flat roofs there is evidence of the transformation of what was once a rural village, [which was transformed] into the largest explosives production site in Europe during the Nazi era: 17,000 foreign workers were forced into labor in the factories there.

Today, 70 percent of Stadtallendorf’s citizens have a so-called “migration background.” This is also the composition of Dieter Bachmann’s class. He is a teacher who establishes a personal and emotional relationship with the students. He doesn’t see himself only as a teacher who imparts knowledge, but rather as someone who brings in his own personality with all its strengths and weaknesses. There are no taboos for him, and he meets the students without prejudice — not only as a claim of political correctness, but as lived, emotional openness without [judgement].

In this way, he creates an open, fear-free atmosphere in which the students feel safe in their own development. The school becomes a living room. It becomes a place of trust where students can discuss whatever is on their minds with a teacher who challenges, provokes, encourages, criticizes, and strengthens them in conversation — someone who promotes solidarity and empathy. Someone who knows that strengthening his pupils’ self-worth can be more important than the Pythagorean theorem. Someone who throws all his abilities in the balance, so non-academic skills can develop as well. Juggling, shaping stones, building tables, dancing, making music — important activities that foster communication among the students and help bridge social, cultural, and linguistic barriers.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

MS: Dieter Bachmann is a longtime friend of my DoP Reinhold Vorschneider, and we have known each other for years. When Dieter started working as a teacher in Stadtallendorf, he frequently told me about this town. At some point, I visited him there, and I was already fascinated by the appearance of the place — a gigantic-looking industrial site in the middle of the town surrounded by apartment blocks, bungalow-like commercial buildings with flat roofs on which pine and birch trees grow, Turkish-dominated shopping streets, rural half-timbered houses.

And then there is the history — until the Nazi regime built the largest explosives industry in Europe there in 1938 with 17,000 forced and foreign laborers, Stadtallendorf used to be just a typical rural village. After the war, new industries settled into the remaining facilities. At the beginning of the 60s, the new foreign workers came from Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Today, the migrant share of the population is 70 percent. The irony of history — the Nazi regime wanted the elimination of the “foreigner” and indirectly helped to open this city to the “foreigner.”

The city itself was the first protagonist, so to speak. With Dieter Bachmann’s class, the multiculturalism of this class interested me and the question: does class life work under such conditions, and if so, how? But of course, the teacher [also interested me], he who gives the children other possibilities of experience and confirmation beyond the mere imparting of knowledge, music, sculpting, carpentry, juggling, etc. — who meets the children without prejudice.

The teacher who establishes a culture of conversation in the classroom where everyone can express themselves freely. A teacher who not only fulfills the role of a teacher, but also contributes as a whole human and is thus also a role model for the children to voice their very personal concerns.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

MS: The students in Mr. Bachmann’s class come from a predominantly working-class background — their academic opportunities are limited, their living situation often precarious. They are not in the public eye and are often marginalized. I want to break down the usual prejudices these kids are exposed to, and show what potential they have. The kids have so much strength and love inside them. I hope that this remains in the viewers’ memory.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

MS: The biggest challenge in making this film was not the shooting, but it was the editing. I edited the film myself. The amount of material was scary at first, as I had over 200 hours of footage. Since we were shooting strictly observationally and the course of the lessons was unpredictable, the two cameras had to run more or less without interruption.

The first cut was more than 20 hours long. In condensing the material, the focus was on the thematic complexes, and how the protagonists develop — what dramaturgical lines emerge in their development. It was important to me that the viewer gets an impression of these children’s personalities, that they can still remember them after the film — Hasan, Stefi, Ayman, Rabia, Cengiz, etc.

From the first 20-hour version, I then edited it to about eight hours — that’s when I was finally able to see the edited version in one day, which was great. I had the feeling “Okay, this can eventually turn into a film. This is developing a structure.” The process of editing took about three years.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

MS: The film is made exclusively with funds from public film funding. We didn’t count on the participation of a television broadcaster. The budget was extremely low since a larger sum could not be acquired through subsidies. As a result, a great deal of unpaid work was required to produce the film.

For example, I had the roles of producer, writer, director, and editor. The costs for the three years of editing and the length of the film were not calculated. Finalizing the film was only possible due to the concession of the post-production company. But even the shooting was a challenge due to the underfunding. The original sound mixer, for example, had to work without a boom operator and had to respond to dialogue that was spoken across the room, and which was all mixed up.

Fortunately, the success of the film compensates for all the efforts.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

MS: It was a coincidence during a Rolling Stones concert at the end of the ’80s. An editor was sitting next to me — she was curious and so was I. A conversation and an invitation to her editing room resulted. Then my ambition and my curiosity grew.

What would it be like to edit films myself? Make films myself? Or back in time again: how, as a six-year-old, I would sit on the street of my village and scratch figures in the dirt with a broken branch. In my mind, I can see the prince — or is it a princess — riding towards me on their horse. The impetus of my work is curiosity. The source and impulse for my cinematic work are the perceptions and experiences of my life’s reality.

For me, this makes the distinction between fiction and documentary relative. Choosing the right form is important to be able to express something. Documentaries can be infused with playfulness or vice versa. Staging is intrinsic to reality; we all play roles in our lives. Form is important, yes — but above all, it’s about what story you want to tell, what you want to talk about cinematically. That also takes courage — to express something that has imprinted itself. Courage to let it develop into a film. Filmmakers are collectors. This requires attentiveness, the exact perception of the world without judgement — what do I see, what do I hear, what do I smell?

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

MS: There is no one way of filmmaking — everyone needs something different, and is at a different point in their life. And you should learn to deal with failure. Learning to get up again and again, to keep going. Try to do it better next time.

As a film student, I “failed” in my first year at film school. I was shooting a documentary about mothers with children in prison, “Knastmütter.” In the editing room, the fears I had already expressed during filming were confirmed — the sound recordings were unusable. I tried everything to save the sound, but unfortunately the film could not be shown. I was devastated, then Helke Misselwitz, my professor at the time, came to me, and gave me an important hint, saying, “This is not the end. You will make something out of this material.” And she right. A few years later I made my film “Madonnas,” and “Knastmütter” became [a form of] research for this film. It’s a path you take — perhaps you learn the most from failed films. At that time, of course, I couldn’t see it that way, and was angry and sad.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors? 

MS: To always follow your own instinct, to trust in your feelings. That is the only compass we have. And in the end, one should keep one’s naivety — or perhaps regain it. Naivety has to do with openness. The intuition that helps one make the right decisions. The inner compass that guides you. You should protect that at all costs. Just like the childlike joy of discovery, wonderment with the world and about oneself, pushing boundaries, and engaging with other people.

Have the courage to be true to yourself.

To quote John Cassavetes, “The most important thing in life are your own feelings. If that wasn’t damaged, you would be a fantastic person all your life. If you feel something, it’s true. The only truth you can trust is what you feel. If we lose our instinct for truth, we come up empty-handed.”

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

MS: There are many but I would like to name one, Barbara Loden’s “Wanda.”

The film shows an excerpt of a few weeks from the life of Wanda Goransky, played by the director herself, and consistently focuses on observing and describing her condition. Wanda is an extreme female figure, who as Barbara Loden herself says “is not prepared for life,” who does not know how to live, who drifts through life like a ghost, like a dead person who is unable to react to what happens to her.

And so, the course of her life is determined by her relationships with men. She meets Mr. Dennis, who is in the process of robbing a bar, which Wanda in her naivety does not notice. The invitation to join him is enough, and she follows him for the next weeks of her life. This complete lack of a blueprint of one’s own self leads Wanda to a sometimes barely tolerable degree of passivity in her social actions.

Aesthetically, the film seems almost documentary-like. Longer planned sequences alternate with crudely edited sequences, giving the impression of an uncontrolled, documentary-like observational situation. Loden’s film has a relatively slow narrative tempo: she allows the characters the time they need for their reactions, gestures, and looks and gives space for, dramaturgically speaking, trivialities, which are [actually] enormously important for the atmosphere of the film.

Wanda’s image is thus created only by what happens within this period, and we learn nothing about Wanda’s origins, her childhood, her parents, i.e. nothing about conditions that could help explain her personality structures. At the end of the film, however, Wanda is back in the same condition as at the beginning. The film denies Wanda’s development: there is no sentimental education.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

MS: I was lucky. I spent a large part of the pandemic period editing “Mr. Bachmann and His Class” in a darkened room at my home in self-imposed quarantine.

But now, to develop new ideas, I need the outside world again.

School is a physical process, and that’s why there’s no substitute for being present. It also shows us what’s important. Therefore, being present in the world is also essential for my filmmaking.

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