The 26th Annual ‘Berlin & Beyond Film Festival’ Opens a window on a common issue we also have here in the USA: Education

Directed by Maria Speth, Mr. Bachmann teaches a class of students who are immigrants and children of immigrants, each struggling to assimilate into a complex 21st Century European society. Photo courtesy of Madonnen Films

With the looming student loan debt crisis, it’s difficult to keep a positive eye on education in the worldview. Yet as the upcoming 26th annual ‘Berlin & Beyond Film Festival’ will highlight in its documentary selection “Mr. Bachmann and His Class” offers a worldview (or ‘Weltanschauung’ in German), that is as close as simply opening another window. 

And that’s the unique aspect to documentary film from another part of the world. It provides a different or sometimes fresh worldview ‘Weltanschauung’

Initially released last year in 2021, Mr. Bachmann and His Class has continued to make an impression. The winner of four awards despite the length of it, critics such as The Hollywood Reporter have applauded Mr. Bachmann and His Class, as “effortlessly absorbing and deeply encouraging…” 

Director/filmmaker Maria Speth in interviews described the school where Mr. Bachmann coordinates class as a regular school in a conservative town (of Stadtallendorf outside Frankfurt). What makes him unique is his ability to help the students assimilate into the society. Most of the students are immigrants or children of immigrants, some struggling with speaking German. Yet Bachmann manages to foster a sense of community in a “Utopian” sort of way, as Speth noted.

Director/Filmmaker Maria Speth. Photo courtesy of Wolfgang Borrs.

Down-to-earth in an AC/DC style sweatshirt, Mr. Bachmann has unique approaches that make the film compelling. IndieWire notes in its review, “it’s quickly clear that he greatly values opportunities to encourage his students to perform music themselves.” 

Accepting the students as they are while helping them to participate despite language, cultural, and even religious barriers, is how Bachmann has been able to reach them. 

As our schools here in the U.S. at every level seem to be falling behind in an increasingly complicated world, Germany and other European countries have a different approach.  

“Overall, the quality of the education in Germany is much higher as there are no concessions made,” said Sina Von Reitzenstein, who works in San Francisco and hopes to make time to attend the film festival. 

As someone whose parents were from Germany/Austria and who spent time growing up in both Europe and the U.S. (mostly in the SF Bay Area) Von Reitzenstein speaks from experience.  “I firmly believe the major difference between German/Austrian and Western European schools is the fact that when the German/Austrian/European teenager graduates at approximately 18 years of age with an “Abitur” (Germany) or “Matura” (Austria) they are far and above better educated and prepared for higher education, than an 18-year-old high school graduate from the United States,” she added. 

Analysts and observers have noted that American schools are still operating under an ‘Industrial age’ system still focusing on factory-like results. 

Taking a step back, while American schools have traditionally looked to British influences to form school structure, another European influence was also involved. Surprise! It was that of the German; think of concepts and structures like Kindergarten, P.E., and field trips, these were all due to the influx of German/Austrian immigrants of the 19th Century, as the archives of the U.S. Library of Congress point out. 

The U.S. education system, from the lowest grades to the highest, would be unrecognizable without ideas championed by German immigrants. German culture has long cultivated a strong commitment to education, and Germans brought this dedication with them to their new home. In 1855, German immigrants in Wisconsin launched the first kindergarten in America, based on the kindergartens of Germany. Germans introduced physical education and vocational education into the public schools, and were responsible for the inclusion of gymnasiums in school buildings. More important, they were leaders in the call for universal education, a notion not common in the U.S. at the time.

“Yes, physical education is a tradition in Germany and Austria,said Von Reitzenstein. But really it is for health,” she explained further. “German culture would never allow every single weekend to be completely wasted by families running from one game to another and cheering their kids on. The heavy focus on sports, she pointed out, “is an American phenomenon.” 

When she was told about the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival and this documentary, Von Reitzenstein applauded. As she sees it, America is an industrial nation. Americans share a lot with their European counterparts with regards to cultural diversity, a migrant working class, and political-religious issues that can easily polarize and divide people. 

 As currently in San Francisco, the SF Unified School District is seeking to shutdown schools and its City College is laying off teachers, there are committed teachers here in the U.S. like Bachmann. Unfortunately, they are an exception.  

“The U.S. education system in general is underwhelming,” said Von Reitzenstein. This documentary provides a ray of hope, one that Von Reitzenstein is proud to say is “besonders deutsch” – particularly German. 

The Goethe-Institut of San Francisco founded the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival as way to foster greater cultural understanding and be a bridge for positive connection in an ever-changing world.  San Francisco Grants for the Arts, DW (Deutsche Welle), and the Excelsior German Center are also sponsoring this year’s film festival.

Image courtesy of the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival 2022.

German Films / German Film Office, the Consulate General of Germany, and the Consulate General of Switzerland are Signature Sponsors. Making its West Coast Premiere, Mr. Bachmann and His Class– (Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse) is one of two features in this year’s festival Doc Features section

Berlin & Beyond Film Festival begins on March 11 and concludes on March 16. The Goethe-Institut is pleased that this year will be an “in-person” event with current COVID-19 protocols and procedures in place. For the full schedule of screenings, various venues and events visit the Berlin & Beyond website.