In 1995 Hubertus Siegert was looking for actors in schools in Berlin for his short film THE ORANGE KISS. The casting was particularly successful in a class at the Fläming School – the class teacher was called Gudrun Haase. “The class had an amazing mix of handicapped and gifted children,” recalls Siegert. “The children were very advanced socially. And they could play extraordinarily well, without the whole children’s theater-honky-tonk, which was certainly due to the fact that Gudrun Haase is a theater teacher with body and soul. “The subject of the integration class inspired Hubertus Siegert as film material. During several years of work on his documentary film Berlin Babylon, however, the idea faded into the background again.

Years later, in November 2003, Hubertus Siegert met Gudrun Haase privately to talk to her about his son’s schooling. “That evening she talked a lot and very vividly about her fifth grade, and my old idea suddenly took shape – during this time I had been working on a project about European school children and had become familiar with the matter. I asked her if she wanted to risk me making an observational film in her class. She accepted immediately.”

After the school and the director Elke Hübner had agreed to support the project, test recordings were made in the integration classes of all six years of the school. “We decided on Mrs. Hasse’s eleven-year-olds, an age at which the children are already very conscious, but are still really children.” For the beginning of school, filming had to start on February 9th. So there were only two months left for developing and writing the synopsis and script, putting together the team and the technology. During this time, filming permits from parents and children also had to be obtained, a process that was associated with many and intensive conversations and discussions.

Financing was initially at the production’s own risk. Shortly before shooting began, the North Rhine-Westphalia Film Foundation, and later Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, agreed. Finally, ARTE completed the budget of 220,000 euros before the filming was completed. “The production costs where covered,” says Hubertus Siegert. “With the small team that filming at school required anyway, and the high-resolution video technology, we were able to work very cheaply, even if we would have liked to do a little more here and there. But if you don’t have it, then it doesn’t matter … The really expensive thing today is the complex post-production, which you can’t avoid if you want to produce for the cinema.”

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“I think education has to do with everything: bribery, blackmail, yelling and being kind. The latter is necessary, so that the children do not hate the teachers.”
Dennis, 12 , student

Perhaps one should first learn to ignore people who bawl behind their backs or grimace and not to let others bother them.”
Luca, 12 , student

The shooting took place on a total of 35 days, which were spread over one to two-week blocks over the school half-year. The day of shooting usually began in the morning at half past six in front of the school, where the arriving students and the interface between extracurricular and school life were filmed. The shooting had clearly visible effects on class life. The classroom windows had to be tinted to ensure stable lighting conditions and thus freedom of movement for the camera. The film crew consisted of Ulla Kösterke and Wolfgang Schukrafft, who set up and recorded the sound, Armin Fausten as the cameraman and the director Hubertus Siegert, who was able to follow the work of his colleagues via a mobile monitor and provide information.

“At first we filmed very spontaneously. Twenty children distributed around five tables, with three teachers in between who organize “internally differentiated” lessons, that is, lessons tailored to the different children. “It was very difficult to make arrangements, we had to constantly observe and at the same time check whether the situation could be suitable for the film,” says Hubertus Siegert. “That is very much dependent on chance, being in the right place at the right moment and having such great moments as e.g.  Johanna’s presentation. You just have to be there and shoot and see a lot.”

After the first two phases of filming, the material that had been produced up to that point was assembled into a provisional rough cut in order to evaluate the previous process, making decisions for further work and to determine the main protagonists. By luck, the team concentrated on a table of four from the start, at which three of the later protagonists sat together. Two more children have now been added to this scenario in order to do justice to the variety of the class and the emerging narratives.Based on the chronology of the school half-year, the essential approach of the dramaturgy was to first get used to the school situation and to familiarize oneself with the children. The teacher is then exposed from the children’s perspective, as she were an antagonist.

Other teachers as well as the pedagogical staff Birgit Hartmann and Inge Nebl-Koller, who are of great importance for the class as permanent companions, could only be introduced in the background in order not to distract from the children. It also soon became clear that the density of the film would only allow a few changes from school to everyday life for the children. The team therefore limited such recordings to a few situations; the finished film only includes Marwin and Christian’s excursion to the volunteer fire department. 

“I was particularly interested in the balance, the contradiction between the children’s self-organization and the teachers’ authority in influencing the children,” says Siegert. “The tension arose from this contradiction. In contrast, our interest in bringing the integration of the disabled into focus has changed with increasing filming time. In the everyday life of the class, to which we got more and more used, this togetherness was normal and natural. We wanted to show this normality, it was – for us and later for the audience –- extraordinary. “

After filming was completed at the end of June 2004, Hubertus Siegert and his editor Bernd Euscher worked their way through the 100 hours of footage. First they concentrated on the most important events in the class life of the protagonists, their conflicts with the authority of the teacher, their positioning in the class or in the working groups, their understanding or non-understanding. Then the various narrative strands were interwoven in such a way that the course of the school year was mapped out. At the same time as the filming, Hubertus Siegert had recorded extensive conversations with almost all the children without a picture: The children’s statements were now turned into a separate voice-over level, which was intended to further condense the everyday scene on the picture level. This comment was included relatively late because it was not supposed to form the narrative structure of the film.

The different versions of the film were repeatedly shown to those involved, first to the class teacher Gudrun Haase, then also to the director Elke Hübner and the school’s special needs coordinator, Fred Ziebarth. Shortly before the editing was completed, the film was first viewed by the protagonists’ parents and then by themselves. None of those involved made use of the veto right for individual adjustments, small requests for changes were incorporated, other reservations were cleared up during the discussion.The sound design and the elaborate Dolby Digital cinema mix had to face the challenge of creating an atmospheric room tone on the basis of the original sound and creating tension on the acoustic level without any spectacular effects. Siegert deliberately wanted to forego musical accompaniment as in the feature film: “The music shouldn’t have an emotionalizing effect, but rather set milestones in the film or offer relaxation between very concentrated sequences.” In addition to the baroque piano music by Galuppi, which only appears in the opening and closing credits and is used at two key points in the film, Bernd Friedmann composed a rave that can usually be heard outside of class. Then there are the pieces of music that were used in school lessons and in the theater performance.

The Abba song at the end of the film could have been problematic for the production: A girl had brought a music cassette for the birthday of the paralyzed Lena, and the children spontaneously danced to Dancing Queen around her wheelchair. This scene should definitely appear in the film, but the licensing rights for world hits are unaffordable for movies. Abba, however, was very confident and found the idea of the film worth supporting and allowed the song to be used for the film free of charge. Dancing Queen ended up being the cheapest license in the entire film.

Hubertus Siegert hopes that KLASSENLEBEN can make a contribution to the educational debate, especially by focusing on observation and not making a film commentary. The film shows a fifth grade, i.e. the interface between the primary school and the four-part German school system. There are enough people who swear by high school and reject classes with underperforming students from the outset. In my opinion, however, inadequate pedagogy is the problem, both in heterogeneous and in homogeneous classes. One would have to take seriously what is best learned in developmental psychology at what age – and that includes social behavior. But there seems to be a terrible fear of setting things in motion and leading the debate about the quadruple school system, and perhaps the fear of losing votes. But in the end it means that many will continue to cling to the grammar school as the last lifeline in a desolate school system and thus reinforce the very core of the problem: the principle of segregation. “