At age 14, every child attending school in Germany is brought face to face with their nation’s past during World War II. 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 rural town of Fröndenberg.
Filmed from 2014 to 2019, the film examines how, despite Germany’s reputation for exemplary Holocaust education, its national curriculum is backfiring in rural areas where educators encourage middle school students to view the events of World War II from the Nazi perspective. Younger generations of Germans lack basic factual knowledge of the subject, and are unintentionally taught to empathize with the fascist point of view through immersion exercises that reap the net effect of desensitizing young people to their nation’s dark history.
Complicating matters, students hear conflicting ideas that contradict the formal curriculum and are exposed far-right ideals that manifest in various forms, such as neo-Nazi football hooliganism. As their journey deepens, some students are shocked to discover direct familial links to Nazism. Caught between conflicting family histories, curricular narratives, and on-site learning at a concentration camp, each student struggles to form their own views.
With a haunting overlay of rare archival footage, The Lesson sharply underscores the power of education as a military tool, laying out the architecture of the Nazi educational curriculum that was taught in public schools leading up to World War II. The film demonstrates how bystanders helped to enable the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, but also brings hope by focusing on every day German citizens who take a stand against the rise of the far-right.
This affecting societal study shows how easily far-right movements can grip society, and how the ghosts of Germany’s dark past continue to linger into the present day. Filmed against the backdrop of shifting political tides and the rise of the global right, The Lesson is essential viewing amidst the resurgence of xenophobia. Learning the history is the basis, but not enough. In order to create a change, we have to observe and identify, with mature honesty and self-awareness, how human evil exists in each and every one of us – here and now.