Hatred only triumphs when courage has crumbled. 

“The Lesson” must surely stand as one of the most important documentaries this year — the creation of a brilliant director. It reveals the extent to which Holocaust education in Germany no longer guarantees that courage — a much-needed courage … all exposed in this deeply human story — lyrical in form and profound (if not disturbing) in its substance. Extraordinary really …

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

UN Human Rights Chief 2014-2018

THE LESSON

“The Lesson” is the personal journey of director Elena Horn who returns to her small hometown to follow four children as they experience Holocaust education in the public school system in rural Germany. Filmed over five years, from 2014 to 2019, the film is a window into deeply rooted social and political attitudes in Germany amidst the resurgence of the far-right, xenophobia and a fractured, disparate collective memory of the nation’s history.

About the Film

At age 14, every child attending school in Germany is brought face to face with the nation’s past. For many, this means confronting the reality of the Holocaust for the very first time. “The Lesson” explores how new generations in Germany grapple with this tragic history, following a group of children coming of age in the town of Fröndenberg.

 

Director Elena Horn traces the educational journey of four students over the course of five years. From the first uneasy discussions in the classroom, to an emotional visit to the nearby Sachsenhausen concentration camp, the students are introduced to the atrocities committed in their own community.

 

Complicating matters, students hear conflicting ideas from their gym coach that contradict the formal curriculum, and are exposed to locally nascent far-right groups that manifest in the form of neo-Nazi football hooliganism. As the journey deepens, some students are shocked to discover direct familial links to Nazism.

 

Caught between conflicting family histories, the official line of classroom education, and experiences at the concentration camp, each child struggles to form his or her own views.

 

Lily becomes inspired to campaign against the local right-wing party, the AfD. She finds no support from her peers. Indeed, Lee declares she and her family would rather remain silent than speak up. And, Nele is left torn in two minds on the subject, unable to find her away amidst the myriad of conflicting perspectives she encounters.

 

The experiences of these children highlight the fractured and disparate memory of Nazism in Germany, and brings a timely call for better education on the topic.

 

With a haunting overlay of rare archival footage, the film sharply underscores the power of education as a military tool, laying out the architecture of the Nazi educational curriculum that was installed in public schools before World War II for wartime indoctrination of the populace with Nazi ideologies.

 

“The Lesson” sheds light on the powerful truth that “Mitlaufer” or “bystanders” enabled the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. But the film brings hope by focusing on everyday German citizens who take a stand against the rise of the far-right.


This haunting societal study exposes how easily far-right movements can grip society, and how the ghosts of Germany’s dark past still linger. “The Lesson” is timely, essential viewing amidst the resurgence of xenophobia and the global far-right.

Credits

Director – Elena Horn

Producer – Elena Horn

Executive Producers – Alevtina Nepomniachtchikh, Keve Zvolenszky

Cinematography – Alessandro Leonardi
Music – Mattis Schaeffer

Editors – Alessandro Leonardi, Marc Recchia

 

Trailer

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About the Director

Elena is a young German filmmaker who started her career as a media psychologist researching the framing effects in the news coverage of the Iraq War in the US, Britain and Sweden. Today she is working as a story producer for ARTE, WDR, RTL and SPIEGEL TV Wissen, New York Times. Elena’s films focus on questions around education, migration, working culture, love and ethnic conflict, employing visual inspirations from the world of music and dance. As a director, Elena is a fellow of the Logan Non-Fiction Program in New York. Her short documentary “Pizza, Democracy and the Little Prince’’, co-directed with Alessandro Leonardi, earned the ‘’Best Short Documentary Award 2019’’ at the Sedona Film Festival.

Director's Statement

“The Lesson” explores how German children that are coming of age are taught to deal with the nation’s Nazi past. In doing so, it reveals contradictions on the issue within the cultural landscape of modern-day Germany.


While the official state curriculum taught in schools vilifies Germany’s tragic past, one of my goals with the film was to conduct a firsthand case study of education in my hometown of Fröndenberg. I wanted to explore the reality of how this explosive topic is handled in practice, in classrooms inside Germany’s borders. What I found exposed an astonishing myriad of inconsistencies. I wanted to explore the resurgence of the far-right and xenophobia in politics and various subcultures, the fractured and disparate collective memory of National Socialism in Germany and the surprising lack of intimate knowledge or education of the younger generations on the subject. What I found was that even in a modern and developed state, the remnants of a shameful past still live on and shape the perception of younger generations.

As a native German, the Holocaust is a very personal topic for me. As a young person I remember realizing I had never encountered anyone of the Jewish faith, and I assumed that many young Germans, who were not born in one of the nation’s metropolises, might be in a similar situation — that the pain and disruption of these Jewish family histories weren’t visible to me but rather situated in my imagination.

 

I initially intended to make a film about how the German culture of guilt is established within our population. A feeling that I carried inside of me ever since I learnt about it. With fewer and fewer survivors being able to tell of their experiences under the fascist regime, I saw the schools as the only place where this memory and feeling could be awakened. But when I returned to my hometown and began to film in my old high school, the situation in the classroom turned out to be profoundly different from how I remembered it.

 

I wanted to reject the premise that the Holocaust is either ‘“inexplicable” or completely relegated to a previous age. I sought to gain an understanding of our national reality by exposing elements in German society that glorify our tragic past.

 

This film does not focus on aggressive gestures and hate speech of the alt-right but rather on the slow and pernicious creation of “Mitläufer” or “bystanders”, who allow a complacent, dehumanizing shift in society to happen. We want to inspire people to question whether they themselves might passively contribute to a power system that is murderous for others.

 

I grew up in close proximity to the town of Dortmund and its active neo-Nazi scene. I have followed the rise of political antisemitism and Islamophobia. And, my roots in the rural town of Fröndenberg have informed what I think is a unique approach to the subject. Often, right extremism is framed as an East German problem but this story is set right in the heart of former West Germany.

 

The film shows that Germany’s Holocaust education is unfit for our time. I hope that the documentary will help raise awareness of the importance of Holocaust education, which is under dramatic decline. 40% of German children today do not even know what Auschwitz means. Germany’s self-image of mastering its history of genocide needs to be revisited. The notion that Germans are immune to future Nazi movements because the people have “learned their lesson from WWII” must be abandoned, a fact which is brought into full relief by the results of the last general election.

 

We must confront the remnants of nationalist pride in the collective memory of older generations as well as the resurgence of the modern-day far-right. This film focuses on ordinary children who are standing in a rift. My hope is that people who watch the film will understand the subtle ways in which fascism self-propagates and lingers within society, and that this understanding will inform and drive us to rectify the future.

Gallery

Screenings

FLICKERS' Rhode Island International Film Festival (9 August 2020)

Partner Organizations