Starring: Juergen Vogel, Frederick Lau, Jennifer Ulrich, Christiane Paul
Director: Dennis Gansel
Writers: Dennis Gansel and Peter Thorwarth; based on the novel by Todd Strasser
When you hear the word "autocracy," you might not feel dread, as it sounds fairly innocuous if you don't know its meaning. "Dictatorship," however, is a word that can set you on edge--especially if you live in Germany, I suspect.
In The Wave, a high school teacher prepares for project week, which will have all students signing up to learn about a particular political ideology. Rainer Wenger, a former punk, has his hopes set on teaching anarchism, but is lumped with authoritarianism instead. Not exactly rock and roll.
So, to make things interesting--mostly for himself--he turns the week-long project into a social experiment with the students who have signed up. Through the duration of their studies, he establishes himself as a pseudo-dictator and lays out the law of the land, all designed to mimic Hitler--but not outright. He makes everyone refer to him as "sir" and instructs the students in calisthenics to promote good health. Students with weaker grades are paired with the more academically gifted, and so on.
But his fun and games become serious as the students in his class start to take things to heart, and the class starts to resemble more of a gang. The students pitch in with the development of the authoritarian system by giving it a name, the Wave, and even a uniform and salute. The kids also start to exert their own authority outside the boundaries of school to the point where they try to indoctrinate others.
The movie was pretty good, and I don't mean "good for a movie with subtitles"--I mean it was good. The characters are painted with shades of gray, and aren't presented as automatons to push the plot. Although the water polo team members--who become the class's team thanks to the "Wave" moniker--do get a bit of the classic "jock" portrayal, the focus isn't on them thankfully. The teacher could easily be cast in a purely negative light, as he ignores the warning signs of his student's behavior outside class, but there is a sympathetic air about him that lets you see where he's coming from. And the loner kid who takes the gang mentality to heart more than anyone is slowly ramped up with each scene he's in, though towards the end you can pretty much see where it's leading.
For a movie that's inspired by an actual experiment from a 1960s era California high school, this movie could have gone down a very dull and clichéd road. And even with the German adaptation, it risked becoming too on-the-nose. But, the movie works and really shows that through the best intentions, people can be lulled into a dictatorship without even realizing it's happening.