“I wanted to give them star potential because for me, they were my stars.” What better thing can a director say of her protagonists? But how do you make Berlin street children or the sixth-grade pupils of a Hessian comprehensive school into stars of their own lives, as well? How do you transform an empty film studio or a classroom into a world stage?
As Berlin-based director Maria Speth, born 1967 in Bavaria, sees it, filmmaking provides a chance to immerse herself in other existential realities. It takes some time if you approach such investigations as cautiously and with the same open mind as the graduate of the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF in Babelsberg.
Time and trust, research and space are the ideas around which our conversation revolves. In preparation for her documentary film MR BACHMANN AND HIS CLASS (Jury Prize, Berlinale 2021), Speth and her team are back at a school in Stadtallendorf, an industrial town in the center of Germany. Sitting with them are 12- to 14-year-old children from different countries, some of whom still struggle with German, whose parents work in the surrounding area. Nevertheless, in this special place they have a voice because their emphatic, committed class teacher Dieter Bachmann shows what else a school can be: the idea of a community based on solidarity. “In a way, his classroom is like a living room. It radiates a welcoming cosiness. The children feel they are in good hands,” says Maria Speth. “They can discuss everything that bothers them.”
To capture the reality of this space and its vitality, the team are spending a lot of time with the class. They eat together, help with homework, and play music together. When lessons get bogged down, when the air in the classroom becomes stale, Mr. Bachmann likes to pick up his guitar. The teacher turns into a band leader, the class into a polyphonic ensemble in which the pupils can discover their place in the world – and an audience is there, too, like at a live performance.
Uncovering children‘s and young people‘s potentials and talents beyond all clichés was also the aim of Speth‘s documentary film 9 LIVES (2011). “I didn‘t want to make a film about life on the street. I was interested in these homeless children‘s personal stories. They come from varied backgrounds, and it might well have been possible for them to follow a different path in life.” In order to gain access to the homeless youths, their fates and their lives, Speth spent months at Berlin‘s drop-in centers for the young homeless and at their various meeting places, such as Alexanderplatz. Finally, she suggested they meet in a film studio. An empty room became a stage for damaged biographies, for people who were given a chance to speak out and feel liberated, but who were also permitted to reveal their musical talents, their tremendous will to survive.
Speth‘s three feature films also deal with lives that have been thrown off track, individuals who do not want to or cannot settle. Together with her cameraman Reinhold Vorschneider, in the fictional format she also offers her characters the freedom to act without pretence, beyond all social expectations. “Initially, there are frequently personal questions. I was the mother of a young daughter myself when I started preparing for MADONNAS, and I was interested in the question of how you occupy this role, what external pressures there are.” To develop the story of a mother who takes no responsibility despite having five children, Speth researched and shot material in a mother-child penal institution in Frankfurt. The reality of the setting enters into the film, creating an interaction between reality and fiction that is characteristic of her cinema. As is the need to confront her audience with “protagonists who are not exactly accessible”. Perhaps this constitutes the paradoxical beauty of Maria Speth‘s feature films. Her heroines – the aggressive drifter Lynn (INTO THE DAY, 2021), Rita, who evades her role as a mother (MADONNAS, 2007) and Agnes, whose daughter has disappeared, so that she is forced to rethink her mother-daughter relationship when encountering a young homeless woman (DAUGHTERS, 2014) – all surprise and provoke us with their behavior, but they keep us engaged long after the film is over.