Director: Dennis Gansel
Screenwriters: Dennis Gansel, Peter Thorwarth, based on Todd Strasser's novel
Producers: Christian Becker, Nina Maag
Cast: Juergen Vogel, Frederick Lau, Max Riemelt, Jennifer Ulrich, Christiane Paul
Germany, 2008, 101 min.
*When Rainer Wegner, a popular high school teacher, finds himself relegated to teaching autocracy as part of the school’s project week, he’s less than enthusiastic. So are his students, who greet the prospect of studying fascism yet again with apathetic grumbling: “The Nazis sucked. We get it.” Struck by the teenagers’ complacency and unwitting arrogance, Rainer devises an unorthodox experiment. But his hastily conceived lesson in social orders and the power of unity soon grows a life of its own.
In probing the underpinnings of fascism, The Wave is far from a social-studies lesson. As with his previous film, Before the Fall, director Dennis Gansel fashions an energetic, gripping drama that cuts through superficial ideological interrogatives and goes straight for the veins--the human psychologies and individual behaviors that contribute to collective movements. In unpeeling the emotional layers and contradictions of his characters (the need to belong, to be empowered, to escape social distinctions), Gansel offers a humanistic perspective on the terrifying irony that these students may welcome the very things they denounce.
And lest we too easily dismiss this cautionary tale, it’s noteworthy that the true story that prompted Todd Strasser’s novel "The Wave" (from which the film was adapted) did not take place in Germany, but at a high school in Palo Alto.
*Summary by John Nein, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
The Wave is important and controversial filmmaking that epitomizes the kind of cinema Sundance is known for. It is based on a true story about how a simple class on fascism created a fascist movement in Palo Alto, CA in the 60s or 70s. The first stroke of ingenuity is to move the setting of this story to Germany. What a bold move! Germany is a country that still bears the scars of its ancestors, though the country seems to be tired of apologizing for its history. And it should be tired. The children of Germany have no more responsibility for the actions of Hitler and the Third Reich than American children bear accountability for the atrocities against Native Americans. How long does one hold a grudge against a nation? Is it fair to put a time limit on the feelings of anger and pain felt by victims? These are some of the questions The Wave brings up, along with one of the most important: In a modern, informed society, do the dangers of fascism and the spread of intolerance still exist?
The film begins with a teacher begrudgingly accepting an assignment to teach his high school class a week-long lesson on fascism. Rainer is a radical type of teacher, fond of punk and leather jackets, and would have preferred to teach his class about anarchy. In many ways, he seems only slightly removed in age from the kids he is teaching. The start of the film is very fast, high energy, and quickly introduces us to the main characters. Faced with the topic of fascism, Rainer approaches his lessons in a unique fashion. He first asks the class a question, “Is fascism possible in the modern age?” His students act with disdain, “Of course it’s not possible, we are too well informed. We get it, Germany was bad, how many more times do we have to hear it!?” Rainer starts by instituting a class uniform: black pants and white shirts to eliminate social standing. In the second class, Rainer introduces a salute and a name for the group: The Wave.
In no time at all, the uniformed students start hanging out with each other, despite being in different popularity levels, excluding those not in the Wave. This part of the film contains my only real critique, the conversion of the class to the Wave happens too quickly. I understand that the real Palo Alto event only took 5 days, but more efforts should have been made in the movie to make the transition more subtle and less sudden. I do like the small signs of impending doom, such as the shaming of the girl in red and the quiet approval of the blonde girl and Tim. Tim is a familiar character. He is a neglected and mocked student and when this movement comes along, Tim holds a position of power and social acceptance. He buys into that power and becomes more dangerous as the Wave grows stronger. The look on his face as he is threatening punks with a gun under a bridge is near orgasmic, a foreshadowing of things to come. I was a bit confused as to what the Wave stood for, what their ideals were about, but that might have been the point of Rainer; that a fascist movement needs no goals, only solidarity to thrive.
The film’s tension amps up; exploding during an intense water polo game at the school. This is a fantastic scene as it deals with the Wave’s members in the pool and in the crowd. Both act in morally reprehensible ways, but Rainer‘s attentions are so divided, he can’t pay attention to one or the other, and the situation gets out of hand. Maybe, having been a swimmer myself, I just like it when high school water sports are shown to such strong effect on film. The film’s climax is tremendous. Rainer gathers all his followers into an auditorium to end the Wave. There is a big trick reveal in this scene that is probably the only way Rainer could have opened the eyes of his followers. Tim isn’t happy with the ending of the Wave and takes matters to another level. Being able to predict what Tim does in the final scene doesn’t lessen its impact, or fail to remind the audience of recent shootings in the American school system. Even though the audience is reminded of those awful events, the film doesn’t feel manipulative. It is not unimaginable to see this result, in Germany, in America, anywhere. Would it really be that easy to slip into fascism? With such a focus on popularity and acceptance in high school, is it surprising that an ideal focusing on unity could take such strong hold? These thoughts bring me back to the courage necessary for this to be a German film. I don’t care how long ago World War Two was, the German history will always cast a shadow over future generations and to depict such a slippery slide of young German society into the footsteps of the Third Reich is terrifying. I’m not sure if this film can be released in Germany, but it should, as a modern warning to a society convinced that the past can never re-surface.
In the Q&A, questions were asked about the real events in Palo Alto. Like me, many of the audience members felt that the conversion to the Wave over the course of a week happened unrealistically fast. The filmmakers explained that the group in Palo Alto grew to encompass 3 high schools and over 800 members in only 5 days! That’s scary stuff right there. In real life, there was a big meeting at the end where the teacher ended the movement, and though the film’s conclusion was far bleaker and cinematic than real life, the depictions of the movement’s activities were not. I started thinking about what role I would have taken if the Wave had occurred at my high school. By no means was I a popular kid, would I have been strong enough to endure social outcast and derision like the German girl in red? Or would I have gladly put on a white shirt and gotten sucked into the allure of a group mind? As the teacher is being taken away in a police car at the end of the film, Rainer looks into the camera with a startled look on his face just before the screen goes to black. I read this moment as a warning, a deliberate breaking of the fourth wall to force the audience to examine themselves and their capacity to believe in a dangerous ideal. There are problems with The Wave, plot contrivances just a little too convenient, but the ideas and issues brought up by the film more than make up for those thoughts. By re-examining the causes and allures of the most dangerous governmental body in recent history, it helps audience members thinking. To dismiss and reject an idea is dangerous, but to keep the issue alive is to force us to take active steps to keep an idea from becoming reality again. This is what Sundance movies are about: new ideas and the acceptance of wildly different points of view. The Wave is a movie that one will not soon forget.