“Put civil courage on the syllabus!”
“Hitler is a bad guy and Nazi is a bad word – that was all the students knew about the National Socialist period in Germany,” Elena Horn says. In 2014, she began following a class of 14-year-olds in their first history lessons on this topic for her film THE LESSON – Teaching the Holocaust to Germany’s Gen Z.
To shoot the film, the director went back to her old school in Fröndenberg, near Dortmund. Over the course of five years, Elena Horn filmed students as they were repeatedly confronted with the subject of World War II in the classroom, and she observed how their perspective on this chapter of Germany history changed. She also uncovered old film footage from the 1930s showing what everyday life was like for students in this region at the time.
“It was interesting to see how many parallels there are between the lives of the children today and back then,” Elena Horn says.
It is important to Elena Horn that young people are exposed to the Holocaust in the classroom not just from the perpetrators’ perspective by learning hard facts by rote, while the victims’ perspective is left to fiction films and literature. The director calls for an entirely new educational approach.
“My trigger for this film was that I was 21 years old before I finally met someone of the Jewish faith. He told me that my grandparents had killed his grandparents – and that was the first time I grasped the pain that the affected families feel to this day.”
Lilly Hachmann, one of the protagonists in the film who is now studying political science, looks back on the lessons at the time and says, “I was missing the connection to now. I don’t think anyone said to us that antisemitism still exists today and it’s still a problem today and people are still being insulted today because they follow the Jewish faith.”
“Students today face the challenge of having to deal with many different sources of information, and they often don’t really know which they should believe. Teachers are no longer viewed as natural authority figures.” Elena Horn therefore argues that schools should work more with documentary film material to dispel any fundamental doubts right from the start.
What life lesson should young people take with them from their school days? For Elena Horn, the answer is clear: civil courage.
Elena Horn and Lilly Hachmann about #everynamecounts
THE LESSON – Teaching the Holocaust to Germany’s Gen Z is being screened at many different international film festivals this year – most recently the Human Rights Watch Festival.