a film by Florian Heinzen-Ziob
Klasse Deutsch Film

GERMAN CLASS every beginning is hard

During a short film project about “money and debts” with pupils at Cologne’s Henry Ford secondary school, I spotted a strange lesson plan on a board: “Monday to Friday – 5 x German”. Nothing but German. I wondered who had devised such a sadistic lesson plan. Then I came across Ute Vecchio and her preparation class, or “VK”.

The VK is the first port of call for children who have arrived in Germany from a foreign country. Here they are integrated into the German school system in no more than two years. Each pupil arrives with a very different level of knowledge. Some pupils attended elite schools in their homelands and simply laugh at the level they discover upon their arrival at VK. Others have yet to learn to read and write in their short, eventful lives. These differing levels of knowledge make it difficult for the teacher to plan a language class that works for everyone. This is why Ute Vecchio has decided to work with each pupil individually where possible.

VK Klasse Henry-Ford-Realschule

When I first attended the VK class, I was immediately amazed by the enthusiasm and energy with which children from all over the world grapple with the German language. What’s the difference between “finden” (to find) and “erfinden” (to invent)? How do you conjugate the verb “bitten” (to ask)? And I soon realised the teacher’s role here is something way bigger than someone who simply drums grammar into her pupils. She is the pupils’ go-to person if they are homesick or are at risk of being deported. She represents academic discipline but also protects the children from their overly ambitious parents. She can explain and facets of the German legal system and also how to use a dictionary. You could say Ute Vecchio is the first part of Germany the children get to know. And I was hugely impressed by the great job she is doing.

I knew right away that I wanted to shoot a film about this extraordinary school class. I didn’t want this to be yet another concerned look at the refugee situation. I wanted it to be an emotional, gritty and also humorous film about the courage, energy and passion that young immigrants display when trying to settle in Germany. I was therefore extremely fortunate that class teacher Ute Vecchio and also the film‘s protagonists – twelve-year-old Pranvera from Albania, 13-year-old Schach from Kyrgyzstan, 13-year-old Kujtim from Kosovo and 15-year-old Ferdi, also from Kosovo – really opened up when on camera.

“German Class” looks at what is currently a widely discussed and controversial topic in Germany. Refugee numbers and border closures are frequently debated in politics. Populist parties have seen a surge in popularity born out of fears of a supposed infiltration of foreigners. For me as a filmmaker, I knew I wanted to remove the film from this everyday context. Unlike a news report or current affairs programme, a cinema film needs – in my opinion – to have a timeless, universal element to it.

I developed strategies to set the film apart from those same images and stories that we see in the news on a daily basis. I didn’t want any images of overcrowded refugees shelters or scenes shot in the so-called “problem districts”. Instead I decided to focus on a place we all know well – school. Then reducing that to a single room – pretty much the entire film plays out in the VK classroom – was the biggest decision of all. We learn about the pupils, about where they’re from, their family situations, their problems, but only what they talk about in class. The protagonists are never portrayed as people in need of our help, they are active participants. They learn, avoid learning, fail and struggle through. We‘re not looking down on the pupils, we‘re there in the same place as them and on equal terms, we’re not emphasising the protagonists’ foreignness or “exoticness”, we look at what connects us and the familiarities we share. This is what made “German Class” into a universal film about childhood and learning.

Even the decision to shoot the film in black and white was designed to remove it from its time and to make it easier for the viewers to associate it with their own time at school. A classroom is also a busy place in a visual sense: the red chairs compete for the viewer’s visual attention with the multi-coloured books that lie on the tables, the colourful posters on the walls and the children’s T-shirts. Your eyes get no rest whatsoever and the protagonists, who are supposed to be the focus of the film, get lost in a whirl of colours. Losing the colour brought the children back to the centre of the picture and lent the narrative something of an archetypal feel.

With these considerations in mind, I got to work. I shot the goings-on in the VK on a regular basis over a period of six months. We arrived for the first class in the morning and stayed right through until the end of fifth class. That helped us to establish a close relationship with the pupils and the teacher. Our film crew of three became part of the class. The long shots – sometimes as long as 30 minutes – allowed us to capture the authentic learning environment without disrupting it. I also did two film courses with the children to give them the chance to experience what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera. The children gradually got used to the camera. We became invisible and – without really noticing it happen – became part of the class. We ourselves were back at school.

“German Class” is now complete. Ute Vecchio is still teaching her VK class, with new children from all over the world. The children in my film either made it to secondary school proper, got kicked out of school altogether, or got deported. They all face an uncertain future. In spite of their respective situations, I still think the time they spent in the VK will stand them in good stead for their onward journeys. Above all, their teacher Ute Vecchio, who showed them discipline and affection in equal measure, will always remain a role model for them in tackling life‘s many challenges.

What did I learn at the VK? To see my own time at school from a new perspective. Not – as I did then – as a torturous waste of time, where the clocks ran backwards. No, I now understand what a real privilege it is to be able to go to school.