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’ follows four children through their experience of learning about the Holocaust in a German state school. Filmed over five years during 2014-2019, the film touches upon important social and political issues including the resurgence of the far-right, xenophobia, the fractured, disparate collective memory of National Socialism and the surprising lack of intimate knowledge of the younger generations on the subject. The film examines how despite the perceived exemplary educational system, new generations are growing indifferent to their nation’s dark past and unwilling to apply the lessons learned to the realities of today. Filmed against the backdrop of changing political scenery during five years of production, in Germany and across the world, the film subtly suggests the urgency and importance in tackling the uncomfortable truths therein.

About the Film

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

 

Following their educational journey over the course of four years we see how complex this issue remains. From their first tentative discussions in the classroom, to their emotional visit of the nearby Sachsenhausen concentration camp the students gain some understanding of the atrocities committed.

 

Complicating matters, concurrently to this formal education, the students are given conflicting ideas from their gym coach, exposed to local nascent far-right elements in the form of Neo-Nazi football hooligans and some even discover confusing familial links to Nazism.

 

Trapped between the official line of their teachers, their experiences at the camp and the conflicting narratives from other staff, the football stadium and the wistful memories of their families each child struggles to form their own opinions.

 

Whilst Lily becomes inspired to campaign against local right-wing party the AFD, she doesn’t find support from her peers. Indeed Lee declares her and her family would rather remain silent than speak up. Meanwhile Nele is left torn between two minds on the subject, unable to find her away amidst the myriad of conflicting perspectives she encounters.

 

Their experiences highlight how fractured and disparate the memory of national socialism remains in Germany and brings a timely call for better education on the topic.

 

Indeed the importance and power of education in this respect is exemplified by the overlay of archive footage throughout the film, depicting genuine Nazi educational techniques on children no different to those educated today.

 

‘The Lesson’ by focusing on the common people and how they deal with Germany’s Nazi past brings to light a powerful truth, that it is the ‘Mitlaufer’ or ‘bystanders’ who allowed the rise of Nazism in the 1930s and it is the common people of today who make the stand against the rise of the far-right. This haunting case study exposes how easily far-right movements can get a grip on a society and how the remnants of Germany’s dark past still linger on. A timely lesson amidst the resurgence of xenophobia and the far-right globally.

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 Horn 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 ZDF, WDR, SKY and SPIEGEL TV Wissen. 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. Currently Elena is working as a director for ARTE – a French-German culture channel.

Director's Statement

‘The Lesson’ explores how German children coming of age are taught to deal with the nation’s Nazi past. In doing so it reveals just how confused and contradictory the cultural landscape of modern day Germany can be on the issue. Despite the official state sanctioned position taught in schools which vilifies this sordid past ‘The Lesson’ uses the town of Frondenberg as vehicle to explore the reality of how this polemic topic is handled within Germany’s borders exposing a myriad of inconsistencies. In doing so the film touches upon a host of important social and political issues: the resurgence of the far-right and xenophobia in politics and in 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.

The film shows how even in a modern and developed state such as Germany the remnants of a shameful past still live on and help shape the younger generations in Germany. As a native German this is a very personal and relatable topic for me, as a young person I remember realising I had never encountered anyone of the Jewish faith before and struggling to know how to deal with my nation’s past. The film, which is shot in my home town and in my old high school, allows me to come to terms with the very same issues within the very same landscape which I once navigated to find my own understanding on these issues. It is in part my personal relationship with the topic which drives me to make this film and the desire to reject the premise that the Holocaust is either ‘inexplicable’ or completely relegated to a previous age. Instead I sought to make a film which recognises the elements in German society which are compatible with or are glorifying this past and that tries to understand this reality helping to steer the future generations away from it. The film doesn’t focus on the aggressive gestures and paroles of the alt right but rather the slow and harmful creation of “Mitläufer” – bystanders – who allow a dehumanising shift in society happen.

 

Having grown up in great proximity to Dortmund and its vibrant Neo-Nazi scene and having followed the rise of anti-semitism and Islamophobia in its political make-up for some time now, I feel best suited and most motivated to make this film to tackle these issues head-on. My long established roots in my hometown of Frondenberg also facilitated my unique approach to making this film: following a group of children over their entire high school career over the long period of five years.

 

We hope that our film helps the younger generation of Germans come to terms with their cultural heritage as Germans and understand the importance of confronting this past in all aspects of their life. Above all, because of their particular and powerful position as voters within the strongest economy of the EU. Ideally the film will help raise awareness on the importance of education on this subject which is under dramatic decline. 40% of German children today don’t even know what Auschwitz is. Germany’s image of dealing particularly well with its past of genocide needs to be revisited. Also the idea of simply being protected from similar things returning, just because the German people have “learned their lesson from the WWII” must be abandoned – above all in the light of the results of the last general election.

 

Realising the actual dangers of both remnants of nationalist pride in the collective memory of the older generations as well the resurgence of modern day far right political and social movements is extraordinarily important at this point. The film really focuses on ordinary children who are standing between the lines. Showing this film to the young people could be very fruitful because they see both cowards and heroes amongst themselves. Perhaps in viewing this film we can help uncover the ways in which fascism propagates itself and lingers within society and this will inform us on how to rectify this in the future.

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