For a movie with such a complicated provenance and that treats such big ideas, The Wave is quite straightforward. Modeled on a late-1960s experiment conducted by a California high school teacher (which spawned a popular adolescent novel and other literary and performance works), the German-language drama entertains without being as incisive about totalitarianism as it fancies. Maybe it has taken until now for The Wave—shot in 2007 and screened at Sundance in 2008—to surface stateside because no one thought it could resonate with American audiences the way it has with German moviegoers. The folks at IFC are challenging this assumption by releasing the picture theatrically in New York City and nationally on demand, alongside director Dennis Gansel's vampire flick We Are the Night.
Co-written by Gansel and Peter Thorwarth, The Wave is set in the present-day at a German high school in an unnamed, affluent town. Actor Jürgen Vogel perfectly embodies Rainer Wenger, a cool teacher with a reputation for being unconventional and a taste for punk rock. During "project week," when students focus exclusively on one subject, Rainer expects to lead the "Anarchy" seminar as usual. But a stuffy colleague beats him to it and so he ends up with "Autocracy." Initially unenthused, he's sparked by an assumption voiced during the first class on Monday: A fascist movement like Nazism could never again take hold in Germany. Motivated, at least in part, by a desire to undermine such complacency, Rainer mimics a miniature autocratic state, mostly through the power of suggestion. The students run with it and as the week progresses give their movement a name, "The Wave," a uniform and a salute. During a water polo match on the last day of project-week, it becomes clear something must be done to break "The Wave," and Rainer attempts to do so in the film's tense climax.
The Wave is like Glee meets Lord of the Flies meets Before the Fall (Gansel's well-received 2004 film set in an elite prep school for budding Nazis). Problem is, the Glee elements predominate. Gansel does a slick job of showing how fascistic impulses can take hold spontaneously without any malice of forethought. But the definitions of autocracy at play are too abstract to have teeth, and Gansel has some trouble distinguishing the ideas clearly enough within the generic school milieu. Yet to make this story sociologically illuminating and more plausible, you have to get down to the nitty-gritty and reveal the mechanisms with more specificity.
Back in 1967, during a lesson on National Socialism, Cubberley High School history teacher Ron Jones mounted a classroom experiment in which he imposed strict discipline on his teenage charges in order to create a microcosm of authoritarianism. To his amazement, his students eagerly conformed. No one wants to believe contemporary teenagers are as susceptible as these kids, or the kids in The Wave. Of course, this is just the point the movie wants to make. It can always happen, anywhere, even when the "it" is eminently predictable. Another of the movie's prominent themes is the dire influence of American pop culture, in particular the violence and disrespect it celebrates. I'd argue American teens nowadays are less prone to the groupthink depicted in The Wave, not due to any innate individualism or free-spiritedness in our national character, but rather because the ideas it traffics are too subtle, abstract and elusive for them to apprehend. We don't go in for contemplating big, philosophical ideas; by comparison, the German capitalize their nouns and are weaned on Kant and Hegelian dialectics.
Looked at from this more down-to-earth vantage point: cultural stereotyping aside, The Wave is a respectable companion piece to Laurent Cantet's searing, Oscar-nominated French film The Class. The true subject of The Wave is not autocracy but the limits of pedagogy and educational institutions. The unforeseen, negative affects of learning can be as damaging as ignorance. And inspirational leaders, while not as crucial as they are to authoritarian states, are necessary for enlightened democracies to flourish. Above all, the lessons we learn in books and in a classroom setting are rarely as powerful as the ones taught by experience. An idea considered in principle, such as unity and cohesiveness within a given community, often looks far different when put into practice. What calls to mind the Nazis for a German viewer, may evoke Mean Girls in an American.
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Jürgen Vogel, Frederick Lau, Max Riemelt, Jennifer Ulrich, Christiane Paul, Elyas M'Barek, Cristina Do Rego, Jacob Matschenz
Director: Dennis Gansel
Screenwriters: Dennis Gansel, Peter Thorwarth
Producer: Christian Becker
Genre: Drama/Thriller; German-language, subtitled
Running time: 107 min.
Release date: May 27 NY