Interview with Hubertus Siegert

What drew you to want to make a film about this class?

Hubertus Siegert:
I wanted to see how the different children in this unusual class develop and find out how that could be put together into a film. So I didn’t want to document the concept of this school, I wanted to see what was happening in the class. I wanted to get to know the children. It is not the case that an integration class consists of handicapped and talented children and that everything runs smoothly just because you think it’s good. I was attracted by the contradictions that arise when implementing concepts. The decisive nature of the class teacher was at least as much of a challenge for me during the shooting as the equal presence of the disabled students.Another aspect for me was that there is a lot of talk about education, although hardly anyone knows what it looks like in everyday life today, how lessons for children feel like. The discussion about the PISA study in particular is far too abstract, and most people’s emotional assessment of school is based on memories of their own school days, from which an ideal is derived, i.e. either “Exactly as it was, please!” Or “Definitely completely different!”. CLASS LIFE should be a renewal from a completely different direction. I found it exciting to open up an emotional space for dealing with pedagogy.

Was Nicolas Philibert’s film “Being and Having” a role model for you?

Hubertus Siegert:
The success of “Being and Having” has shown that there is an audience for real children in a real school. That helped a lot in financing the film. But from the start I had a different concept than Philibert. I was hardly interested in the teachers, but wanted to consistently adhere to the children’s perspective and pursue their steadfastness, doubts and feelings. The closer you are to the children, the more visible the contradictions in the possible effects of pedagogy become: It just doesn’t always work as the teacher imagines it, and it doesn’t all too seldom work anyway. Jacques Doillon’s films put me on the trail of children. They are feature films, but with children as the main characters in an adult world, an approach to the perspective of children. His films are also always an approximation of our own childhood, of our own memories of how our world shaped us.

CLASS LIFE requires great openness from everyone involved. How did you get the school and teachers and especially the children and parents to participate?

Hubertus Siegert:
I was very fortunate that the school supported me from the beginning and that there was a great willingness to present the school in an unadorned way; from the director Elke Hübner to the class teacher Gudrun Haase to Fred Ziebarth, who is a pioneer in his field of special educational integration. I presented my concept and we spoke openly with parents and children about what it can mean to see yourself publicly on screen and have to deal with how you might be perceived by others. On this basis we all decided together to make the film.

All those involved had the right to veto the use of individual recordings. During the viewings in the different phases of the film editing, there were longer discussions about individual scenes or sentences, but never about the basic attitude and perspective of the film. These discussions were very important, both for us as filmmakers and for those involved. We changed some things – especially when we noticed that we had been exposed to our own stereotypes. However, we were able to make most of the points understandable in the direct discussion. Regardless of all discussion: Ultimately, I am simply grateful to the parents, children and teachers for their great trust.

What was it like filming in the middle of school life?

Hubertus Siegert:
At first it was an enormous stress, a constant diplomatic balancing act in communication with the teachers and children. Before the camera starts, you try to make an appointment –  which often doesn’t work out in the dynamics of a school day, but is always necessary. When the camera is running, you have to constantly evaluate what to do and what to leave out so as not to disturb the class. You don’t know what will happen next, whether it is worth filming, whether it could fit something that has already been shot, whether, which is the worst question, you still need something to be able to finish a situation or a thread. If you work in a documentary without comment, then it is simply difficult to extract enough stones from observed situations for a 90-minute mosaic. Towards the end of the shooting –  when many key points for the film count had already been determined –  I was much more relaxed. I find it astonishing that at least the children didn’t remember my stress. Another essential experience for me was that the observation of class life was very much linked to my own concern. In the conflicts between educators and children e.g. I felt on the side of the students, which led to the fact that I was correspondingly touched, angry, disappointed, amazed or even enthusiastic. I was particularly impressed with Lena, the seriously ill girl in the class, with whom I could only get in touch through physical contact. When she suddenly awoke from the motionlessness of her paralysis, it was overwhelming, as she was obviously reacting to the mood of the class. The fact that some children experienced her as a completely healthy girl in preschool made such moments particularly intense.

Do you think the filming and the presence of the camera influenced the children’s behavior?

Hubertus Siegert:
I didn’t get the impression that the children were very impressed with it. In the course of the filming, our presence became more and more natural for the children and more fluently until they were actually only occupied with their own things. Perhaps some have pursued what obviously interested us more intensely than they would otherwise have done. The situation was probably more difficult for the teachers, who, while watching the camera, are put to the test again in a completely different way. I was very impressed by the courage and willingness to make boundaries visible.

The children reflect a lot about themselves and the class in the film. Why did you choose the form of voice over for this?

Hubertus Siegert:
We made this decision while filming. It was clear that we wouldn’t get the density we wanted in the film just by watching scenes. So we wanted the children’s statements, but not interrupt the flow of the scenes with interview pictures and tear them apart – the picture level should be reserved for class life. An exception is the class teacher, who talks about her conflict with one of the children while supervising her team – this scene in the film is reminiscent of an interview situation and is consciously different from the children’s stories.

How felt the children about the finished film?

Hubertus Siegert:
All reacted surprisingly sentimental. They were very impressed by the atmosphere of the film and their own charisma as a class and thought that they had been “insanely active” “back then”, when filming six months earlier. The astonishing thing was that the children found their presence in the class less intense and active after the film, although the class teacher confirmed to me that nothing significant had changed since then. The expressive possibilities of a movie evidently cause a bigger than life phenomenon that transcends one’s immediate memory. That surprised me.

Has working on, CLASS LIFE been a kind of time travel for you in your own school?

Hubertus Siegert:
My school had so little to do with what I saw at the Fläming School that the months I was there never seemed like a journey through time. From my school days I did not know the conflict between teacher authority and the children’s self-organization that I experienced there and that is at the center of the film. Back then, a teaching authority ruled that understood lessons as applying the ‘Nuremberg funnel’ to the children’s heads.

I’ve had a couple of deja vu situations when the kids felt they were being treated unfairly. But that was different, too: situations like this were the exception here, the teachers themselves were largely aware of them, and the class rebelled against it. At Mrs. Haase’s class, the children can and should discuss with her. Although she can cope well with this situation as a class teacher at the end of the day, there are arguments and the children are encouraged to show their colors.I think this approach is very important, it is the core of Ms. Haase’s teaching erziehen a term that is particularly burdened in Germany. Here, school is seen primarily as a place of education. Ms. Haase provokes a lot of people with her point of view that she also wants to rear the children and not just educate them. But it is far away from black pedagogy, which has permanently discredited the term “education”. In the scene of her supervision session, she shows that she is actively dealing with the ambivalence of her authority and she lets that become public in the film. I think that’s just as courageous as it is likeable.

Do you consider the model of the Fläming School as you have experienced it to be generally applicable, or does it represent an island of the blessed, where middle-class children with some handicapped people grow up very sheltered?

Hubertus Siegert:
The film shows an inclusion class with a 25 percent share of disabled children. For the message of the film, however, it is not important whether it is about the inclusion of disabled students or children of migrants or from difficult social backgrounds. Inclusion is relevant in general.

The guiding principle of the Fläming School is: Do not separate. This also deliberately applies to normal school operations. Solutions should be found and offered for as many difficulties as possible, if they arise with students or teachers. It is taken seriously that every school can generate problem classes, problem children and also problem teachers. The question is whether the school – or better: the schools in general – are honest enough to say: If someone doesn’t get along here, then it’s not just their own, individual problem, but a challenge to the school’s attitude as a social microcosm.

The funds that we put into education through public budgets would have to be structured differently in the long term. A great many social costs, which arise from behavior, knowledge and skills deficits, could be saved if people invested more in the children’s development time. I consider all other measures on the subject of education and school to be of secondary importance compared to this basic attitude. 

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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