For 44 years, the Berlin School for Adult Education has offered a grassroots, self-governing alternative to the state education system. The wonderful documentary Berlin Rebel High School, which can now be seen at the Pravo Ljudski Film Festival, depicts it.
No marks, no headmaster – this school is different from all other schools in Germany. It’s already apparent in the corridors, which are decorated with innumerable graffiti and posters. Many of the pupils are just as colourful, with their dyed hair, tattoos and piercings. They all have something in common: they left the state school system or were excluded from it. Some here have attended five or six schools with no success. The School for Adult Education (Schule für Erwachsenenbildung or SFE) in Berlin-Kreuzberg is their last chance to graduate. Here, there’s no pressure to perform and no competitiveness, but instead personal support and collaborative learning.
Alex from Luckenwald has already dropped out of four schools. The 24-year-old was always being bullied. He was in a home, homeless, written off. Now the gentle young man with the sea-blue eyes is one of the six pupils accompanied by film director Alexander Kleider, born in 1975, for his fascinating documentary Berlin Rebel High School over several years until graduation. To do so, he first had to request the consent of the grassroots, democratically organised collective. The fact that he himself spent two years at the SFE surely helped build trust. His view of the institution, founded in 1973 in the spirit of the anti-authoritarian movement, is loving, but doesn’t whitewash. It also highlights the problems and conflicts of the SFE, which is financed solely by a tuition fee of 160 euros paid by the learners. For example, when in the middle of the most beautiful summer in Berlin, the classes empty and the frustration of teachers rises until a crisis session is convened.
“We’re no deadbeats’ paradise,” says Beate Ulreich from the administration office. Freedom can’t be confused with laxity. Which perfectly describes the self-understanding of the SFE: Here, the pupils have a say – everyone in the collective has a vote – but this means that they all have to get involved to ensure that this alternative school can function. If no one feels responsible for there being toilet brushes in the loos, then there aren’t any, simple as that. Self-government requires a lot of commitment and personal responsibility. This also applies to learning. Although the pupils are motivated, it is difficult for them to find their way back in and keep at it.
The teachers at the SFE know that; they have experience dealing with sensitive young people. For instance, the 29-year-old maths teacher Simon considers gaining their trust his first goal. His motto is “Everyone can do maths; some just take a little longer.” Alex is one of the latter “maths illiterates” (his own self-assessment), who sometimes has to leave class when it gets too much for him. His distance from the subject is reflected in the fact that he does not unpack his new calculator for a long time, but pushes the keys through the plastic packaging.
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Berlin Rebel High School has a good rhythm alternating between interview sequences, brief montages and atmospheric aerial photographs of the school and its surroundings. The film traces the three phases Beate Ulreich has observed among the pupils during her decades at the SFE. It begins with enthusiasm, followed by disillusionment and finally productive panic. The panic emerges before the exams. The pupils can’t take them at the SFE, but only as guests of state high schools, before state examiners. So, at the end of their school career, they once again encounter the system they once escaped from.
23-year-old Hanil, who came to Berlin from Aachen, isn’t worried. He has gone through amazing growth at the SFE, which the film illustrates very well. While he was sceptical at first about whether it is the place for him, in the end he pursues his goal to graduate and then to study mechanical engineering with great discipline. He stopped smoking weed, which led to the expulsion from his last school, a long time ago. He has also overcome his notorious laziness.
“I want to prove it to myself, too, because I know that I’m not stupid,” he says. He chose German as one of his exam subjects, which has a lot to do with his teacher Klaus Trappmann, who helped give him new pleasure in the subject after bad experiences with a racist teacher. Trappmann, 65, has been working at the SFE for four decades. He embodies the hippie spirit of the school and alternative Kreuzberg particularly well.
Stimulated by the Berlin student movement, the man with the long grey mop is still inspired by a strong belief in liberal, humanist educational methods. “There is no ‘wrong,’” he says. “We learn from mistakes.” And when director Kleider observes him with his class during a poetry analysis in his little garden, we understand how he blends seriousness and ease. He has guided 2,500 young people to the Abitur for an hourly wage of 12.50 euros, which is only four euros more than the German minimum wage.
In the last third of Berlin Rebel High School, the audience gets caught up rooting for Hanil and the others to pass their Abitur exam. Only those who pass the four oral exams are admitted to the written test. It’s quite exciting. US director and Oscar winner Michael Moore also liked the documentary, which was nominated for the German Film Award. Via video link at the awards gala, he said that he wished he could have gone to the school. Many spectators in Sarajevo will be thinking the same when they leave the cinema.