What is different between forwards and forwards

"Does at least one of you want to come forward?" The documentary “Between the Chairs” - a (legal clerkship) criticism

By Nicola Brocca

Etre conforme ça forme des cons (Patrick Vernier).

Take a fresh student teacher, put him in a class to teach for 18 months, have him attend practical didactic seminars in parallel, check his performance twice a semester and - abracadabra - the teacher is ready. This ancient recipe is called legal clerkship.

In the documentary Between the chairs (Germany 2016) director Jakob Schmidt puts his finger in the wound of this unique German institution. Short, sober and sometimes funny anecdotes from the classrooms and teachers' rooms, from class visits, conversations with the instructors and private family life show life in the state of emergency before the second state examination. Schmidt has succeeded particularly well in documenting the longing for good teaching caught between official guidelines on the screen. In his first feature-length film project, the barely 30-year-old filmmaker followed three trainee teachers in Berlin for three years: Ralf Credner, who teaches German and history in a grammar school, Anna Kuhnhenn, a sensitive trainee teacher in a primary school, and Katja Wolf, in preparatory work in German and geography a comprehensive school.

The three trainee lawyers couldn't be more different

Ralf becomes a teacher at the grammar school (Photo: Weltkino Filmverleih).

You don't hear a peep in Ralf's class, but Ralf himself seems almost submissive in front of school or seminar leaders (“What do I need for literature?”). Until shortly before the exam he cannot seriously praise and encourage his students - on the contrary: Psychological pressure is part of his didactic rhetoric (“Blue letters will fly”, “According to the school's internal rules, homework that has not been done is given a six”, “Is that not obvious?"). Anna looks down in front of her seminar leader, in class she clings to her notes, has no grades under control and, in terms of didactics, she does not have particularly good preparation. But the students love her, they get involved in group yoga with Anna and would rate her differently than the examination board.

Katja is doing her legal clerkship at a comprehensive school in Berlin (Photo: Weltkino Filmverleih).

Katja, who is very motivated to bring her own globe with her on the first day of school ("I want to be a teacher [...] when someone notices: you make an effort and get something back"), ends up in the 'wrong film': Nobody wants to move forward come and show Magellan's route on the globe. “Sometimes I don't know what to do,” she writes on the edge of a burnout on the blackboard and sits with her back to her noisy class. Katja stands alone in front of the chaos. The only support comes from a young, disaffected colleague in the staff room: “If the students aren't learning anything anyway, you shouldn't concentrate on the content”. Even the headmaster cannot - or does not want to - do anything against the truant when the seminar leader attends classes; he sees the problem elsewhere: "Religious holidays, [...] parent spokesman not available ...".

Truth or art?

The director's art lies in leaving the audience in the unknown until the end of whether the three protagonists will manage to become teachers. The art of the viewer, on the other hand, lies in not immediately wishing them: “Think something beautiful! Then [after the state examination] you will be a teacher! ”Katja's colleagues laugh sarcastically in the classroom. The film encourages you to think about how people feel in their traineeship and what the purpose of teacher training is: Is there a model that trainee teachers should use as a guide? What are the success factors of a good teacher?

Anna in class at the elementary school (Photo: Weltkino Filmverleih).

The comments from the seminar leaders who supervise the trainee teachers suggest that “showing presence” is a basic requirement: “My main consideration is the presence of the teacher, and that is what you have,” says the trainer to Ralf. I would be interested in where Ralf's presence comes from? An innate ability? Or does it come from the 40 different jobs that he had to go through before the clerkship? The tens of thousands of lateral entry teachers in Berlin schools could provide an answer. Anna's trainer (Helmut Hochschild, as Rütli-Retter, a luminary in Berlin's educational world) recognizes Anna as having “the potential of a teacher”. But if you don't have a presence? Then you have to simulate it. Completed trainee lawyers recommend Anna to take acting lessons, because she must not show any weaknesses in front of the seminar leaders. By the way: 'Actor' means Υποκρίτης in ancient Greek. Hence the word hypocrisy, hypocrisy.

Anna and her supervisor (Photo: Weltkino Filmverleih).

The debate about (anti) authoritarian upbringing shapes several interviews: “The pupils are not allowed to run or romp. Then this sitting still every 45 minutes. It's incredibly brutal and not appropriate, ”says Anna. The assembly plays with the composition of the symbol of the organization of the industrial era: pedagogical bell in the seminar, pedagogical bell in the classroom, pedagogical bell in Katja's class, judge's gavel with Ralf. But rigor and discipline pay off when you see Ralf's success in the exam. Unfortunately, the director's eye only follows the trainee Ralf until he starts school as a class teacher. The viewer cannot know whether his “trainer skills” will shape his students positively in the long term, whether they like to learn and not just out of fear of punishment, and I personally dare to doubt it.

Co-presence is not an indicator of the traineeship

Two carpenters nailing down a roof must both be on the roof: one hands the nails and the other hammers. Co-presence is not a characteristic of the traineeship: the trainers have the experience but do not know the classes, while the prospective teachers know the classes but do not yet have a lot of experience. Because she is supposed to show the examination board an hour in cooperative learning, Katja overwhelms herself and her students and leads a catastrophic lesson. The colleague's tip to adjust the seating plan so that there is no explosive student constellation is of no use to her. After class, only the comments of the cynical and conformist young colleagues remain in the background: Katja: "Only half of the class comes with me". “I don't mind,” said the colleague. A close-up of the showcase in the school hallway with hamsters running senselessly on their bikes is a quiet, eloquent message from director Jakob Schmitt about the school going on. The recipe that has been tried and tested for over two centuries is no longer good. A new recipe is needed that includes the student body, takes account of a changed trainer-trainee relationship and enables trainees to take control and to emancipate themselves from the pressure to adapt.

Nicola Brocca
Heidelberg School of Education

P.S .: This blog post was created after the discussion I moderated about the film, which was shown on June 23, 2017 in the Karlstorbahnhof Heidelberg. Without the ideal contribution of those present, this review would have been more difficult. Since I cannot quote all those present, I would like to thank you here 'anonymously' for the stimulating ideas.


Further reviews of the film

Review of Between the Chairs by Barbara Schweizerhof. Edp film 04/21/2017.

Just don't drown from Paul Munzinger. Süddeutsche Zeitung May 18, 2017.

"State of emergency in the classroom" by Susanne Vieth-Entus. Daily mirror 05/13/2017.

“Everything that is fun is forbidden”. An interview by Silke Fokken, Spiegel Online, May 15, 2017.

Jury reasoned: “Predicate particularly valuable”. Film review FBW.