The Lesson | Review | Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2021

In a world frightened of the hard conversations and reconciling the past with the present, Germany does its best to lead a dialogue that enables its youth to learn from the horrors of their country's history.

Elena Horn's second feature documentary, The Lesson, explores that theory by going into the classrooms where the difficult discussions are happening. It's a class she remembers from fifteen years ago, the same method applied to teaching children about the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust during WW2. The Lesson acts as its own form of education, providing breaks from the present day to delve into archival footage and history to show the danger of history repeating itself. 

Many children share that their parents or family members avoid the conversation, believing that the past belongs to the past. Some even have family on the extreme-right with medals donning swastikas and enrolling in camps mimicking children's training for war in the 1930s. 

Horn takes their subject seriously and has no interest in playing with the popular concept of devil's advocate, stating many times in voiceover a worry for future generations who are not required to condemn the acts. There is a current rise of right-wing extremists who have emboldened themselves through political figures and social media rhetoric, strengthened by alternative media that presents itself as fact. It has gotten harder to distinguish fact from fiction, and Horn highlights that through the accounts of her contributors, recognised by older generations who can see us approaching a turning point where we can lean into compassion or explode catastrophically. 

Horn captures the landscape, from small towns to parts of the city where Nazi graffiti dons the walls. A teacher dismays as he takes his students to a concentration camp where they cannot see the past beyond what is present before them. He condemns education, saying the mind is not enough - there must also be emotion. 

That sentiment is really at the heart of this documentary. It speaks to the new fear of the right, where we normalise staying silent in fear of conflict. It states that conversation can start in the classroom, but it has to persist in the streets.

The Lesson is currently playing as part of the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival
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