This film follows seven-year-olds as they learn how to read and write the word ‘cat’ in a lesson on one of the first days of their primary school. It is a ten-minute observation of children’s efforts and their interactions with the teacher.
Halladin puts the pupil’s difficulties with acquiring basic literacy skills at the centre of her screen. This patient representation of early education opened the director’s way to her first international success when in 1960 at Mannheim First Grade won an award from the International Federation of Film Clubs (FICC).
The film stays true to every detail of the kid’s effort. Showing close-ups of hands that are holding pens and pencils for the first time, the camera’s slow movement often imitates the patience of the teacher.
Achieving the veracity of these pictures was chief among Halladin’s on-set objectives. She later recalled that over the first few days the crew had to work on making the kids feel at ease in the presence of a rolling camera.
The director’s attempt to observe events as they unfolded was hindered by clunky equipment. Although she wanted to avoid staging, some activities shown in close-ups had to be reenacted, because the camera that weighed around 50 kilos couldn’t possibly keep up with the pace of active children.
These creative interventions that were driven by technical deficiencies seem to have enhanced the final version of the documentary. Reenacted scenes slow the tempo of the film, signifying patience needed in early education.
Although Halladin’s perspective guides the viewer from shot to shot, the film is narrated by a male voice, that of Polish actor, Wieńczysław Gliński (1921-2008). On the one hand, this might have been the director’s gesture to balance her female point of view that controls the visuals. On the other, however, it can be read as an abdication of the woman’s creative authority.
First Grade is available on DVD with English subtitles.