The Wave

The Wave


Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

Like 2001's Das Experiment, this German film derives its subject matter from an American experiment into conformity with authority, specifically that conducted by history teacher Ron Jones on his high-school class in California in 1969.

Finding himself unable to adequately explain to his students how the Holocaust could have happened, Jones hit upon the idea of making his students participate in an authoritarian movement, which he called The Third Wave. Though precise details on the experiment are hard to come by it worked too well, with Jones feeling that it was slipping out of his control by the fourth day at which point he summoned his students into the hall to meet the leader of the movement, whereupon they were confronted with an image of Adolf Hitler.

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Jones' experiment inspired a young adult novel, which became required reading for German high school students, and which forms the inspiration for Dennis Gansel's film, albeit with a contemporary German setting and some twists on the tale to keep it fresh and relevant.

Jones becomes Rainer Wenger, an ex-squatter punk who trained to become a joint political science and physical education teacher. Anticipating that he would be taking the students for their project week on the topic of anarchism, he's surprised when he turns up at school to find that he's actually been assigned the authoritarianism class.

Faced with the challenge of finding a fresh approach to the subject, the pupils having had Germany's particular historical legacy drummed into them year after year as an integral part of their curriculum, the charismatic teacher hits upon the idea of making a practical demonstration of the appeal of authoritianism.

It begins innocently enough on the Monday. Herr Wenger gets the students to address him as sir and to ask permission before speaking or answering a question and fosters a greater sense of community amongst them by disrupting their usual seating patterns and placing pairs of weaker and stronger students together and encouraging them to work collaboratively rather than competitively – an ironic demonstration of the power of which is provided when they all stamp their feet in unison to disrupt the anarchism class below.

Uniforms, slogans and symbolism follow over the next two days along with a name for the movement: the Wave, an identity which quickly becomes tied in with the school's water polo team, who have a vital match coming up on the Saturday.

Refreshingly, however, they are presented as struggling against relegation rather than for a championship – a device perhaps intended to echo the historical state of Germany in the early 1930s, just as the selection of the sport affords the filmmakers extra aesthetic possibilities by way of underwater photography and so forth – with this stemming in part from the fact that, though blessed with a number of individually talented players, the team has hitherto not really functioned as such.

As the week progresses the good, bad and ugly facets of authoritarianism become increasingly apparent, be it the hitherto isolated student who discovers a new sense of motivation as he comes to feel he is finally a part of something; the identification of an out-group as a necessary precondition for the self-construction of the in-group; or the othering and persecution of those who refuse to conform or actively resist...

Taken as an edutainment drama that provides the viewer with a salutory reminder of the need to be ever vigilant against his or her own inner authoritarian, The Wave is a success.

Though representing types as much as individuals, the characters are more convincingly drawn and portrayed than is often the case, being neither monsters nor saints but rounded figures with good and bad points in a way which helps offset the parallel universe aspect of their existing in a Germany where the novel is apparently not on the reading list.

Dennis Gansel's direction is energetic and effective, working with the pumping soundtrack to draw the viewer into emotional identification with the characters and their joy at being a part of something new and invigorating, all the better to then pull up the rug from under us. Here, though the subject of Taxi Driver is more alienation than over-identification, I was reminded of the way Scorsese presents us with the world exclusively as it appears to Travis Bickle, before then showing us just how psychotic his – and by then most likely our – point of view actually is in the shocking moment when we see him with his mohawk for the first time.

There are some contrivances and absences, but none that really hurts the story the filmmakers want to tell: if, for example, we only get the briefest of glimpses into the Turkish-German Sinan's home life, this is because this domestic sphere is largely irrelevant to these high schoolers in comparison with their peer group.

Similarly, if The Wave is curiously all-inclusive in comparison to its real-world models, this is not only through necessity, given that this aspect of authoritarianism would be hard to pursue – i.e. an ethnic or religious enemy likely could not be identified – but also through intent, as a way of avoiding anything analogous to a mohawked Bickle that would alert the viewer as to how far he or she has also already travelled along the authoritarian path.

In this regard, the other lesson the film imparts is that today the danger is less that of the overt fascist who forthrightly admits to his hatreds and desire to destroy democracy than that of the friendly faces of totalitarianism and authoritarianism who are astute enough to know that such openness is something of a faux pas as far as the voters who count matter; look up Dog Whistle Politics on Wikipedia if you want to know more.

It's also this aspect, however, that the film is perhaps weakest on – unless the point is taken as being that of opening up space for discussion in the manner of a lehrstuck.

Being part of a group that is greater than the sum of its individual parts is also presented as having its positive side for the students, while in the wider world it is obviously something that cuts across everyday life and political range, when we think of teams, clubs, unions and societies of all sorts.

Likewise, to produce any collective art-work tends to imply a degree of authoritarianism, in that someone has to be the director of the play – a theme explored within the film itself – or the conductor of the orchestra or the captain of the team, with the likes of early Soviet experiments at conductor-less orchestras or Ornette Coleman's free jazz the rule-proving exceptions.

As such, if there has to be some leadership and imposition of power outside of the idealised anarchist collective, the question for those of any political hue except the authoritarian wannabe then becomes that of how much is enough and too much – answers on a postcard please...

No doubt more hardcore political cinema types would reject The Wave as being insufficiently radical in form and compromised in content because it doesn't fit their particular agenda. This misses the point that the filmmakers' target audience here is hardly the same as that for, say, Syberberg's Our Hitler A Film From Germany or Straub and Huillet's Not Reconciled.

And, insofar as the notion that everyone must follow in aesthetic lock step with the avant garde tends itself to lead to a holier/purer/more radical-than-though authoritarianism of another sort, this can only be a good thing...

Reviewed on: 05 Jul 2008
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A high school teacher demonstrates with his class the true meaning of autocracy.
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Read more The Wave reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ****

Director: Dennis Gansel

Writer: Dennis Gansel, Peter Thorwarth, based on the novel by Todd Strasser

Starring: Juergen Vogel, Frederick Lau, Max Riemelt, Jennifer Ulrich, Christiane Paul, Elyas M'Barek, Christina do Rego, Jacob Matschenz, Amelie Kiefer

Year: 2008

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: Germany

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If you like this, try:

Das Experiment