I have a soft spot for society in a microcosm stories, ones
where a small group of people stand in for the rest of us, and where we see
social and political ripples going through them. Think Lord of the Flies,
or Das Experiment. The Wave is another film in that
tradition, based on a supposedly true story but of course gussied up a bit in
the name of dramatic license. The real experiment, in which a teacher tried to
explain fascism to his high school class by implementing it, happen in Palo
Alto California in 1967; The Wave is set in Germany in the modern day, and the
change of location offers a brand new layer of depth and meaning. Sadly, the
film insists on smashing the audience over the head with that meaning.

I liked The Wave, despite the fact that it was brutally obvious
and painfully didactic. Besides being a sucker for society in a microcosm
stories, I’m a sucker for high school movies, and it turns out that German high
schools today are indistinguishable from American high schools, down to the Zoo
York hats. The movie is well made, filled with attractive young actors and if I
was 16 years old it would have blown my mind.

The Wave is essentially Fight Club 90210 in German.
Punk rock teacher Rainer Wenger gets stuck teaching autocracy during ‘special project
week’ when he had wanted to be teaching anarchy. Despite the dull subject – and
a general lack of interest on the part of the students in revisiting the evils
of a Germany two generations removed – the class is packed full because
everybody loves Rainer. When the students insist that modern Germans could no
longer fall for a dictatorship, the teacher decides to prove it to them
indoctrinating them into fascist thought and practice.

The story, which sees the kids go from skeptics to fanatically loyal white
shirt wearing members of ‘The Wave’ (every fascist group needs a name, uniform
and salute, and The Wave has all of that), takes place over the course of a
week. Some of the critics at my screening were having a hard time buying this,
but I feel like a week is an epoch in high school time. You can fall in love,
become part of a new subculture, have your heart broken and become part of a
completely diametrically opposed subculture over the course of a week in high
school. Plus the true story apparently took place over just five days, instead
of the expansive six in The Wave.

The Wave begins as just a class, but soon students from all over the school are
joining in. Like Tyler Durden’s Space Monkeys, the entire thing gets massively
out of hand with lightning speed. Rainer, meanwhile, finds that he kind of
likes the adoration from the members of The Wave, and besides, there’s a lot of
good coming out of the whole project – slackers have become attentive students,
misfits have begun to fit in, enemies have found common ground. Of course some
of the students see the inherent evil in The Wave and begin a campaign to end
the group; since every step of the story is dead obvious, the only real tension
in the movie is waiting to see if this will be the kind of film where the
students turn violent against their opponents or not.

The plot isn’t the only obvious point; as soon as each student is introduced it
becomes wildly evident which role they’ll play in the story. Which kid is going
to take the whole experiment too seriously? Which kid will become the muscle?
Which kid will use the unity of The Wave to move in on someone else’s
boyfriend? Duh. If the film wasn’t as well made as it is, the whole thing would
be torture, as you’d just be waiting around to get to the point, all while
sitting through characters delivering speeches straight from a high school
civics text.

The biggest bummer about The Wave is that it doesn’t address the
most interesting issue that it raises; at the end, as the whole experiment is
spiraling out of control and must be shut down, one student says that The Wave
has brought some good things, and it’s hard to deny that. The film just blows
past this point, though, and I feel like it doesn’t make a strong enough
argument against the fascist system. Ask anybody who has been in the military
what they think about an autocratic system and they’ll likely tell you how it
shaped them into the person they are today. There are aspects of the ideology
espoused by The Wave – especially the idea of unity as strength, a basic tenet
of all political and social movements – that make a ton of sense. The other
place where the movie drops the ball is that it doesn’t give enough time to the
fact that the teacher is approaching autocracy from a left wing perspective,
instead of the usual right wing angle. There’s a great argument to be made
about how the left can just as easily lean to dictatorial overkill as the right
(and you’ll find lunatic bloggers claiming that Bill Clinton et al already did
this), but The Wave sort of skirts it.

I liked The Wave because it hit a couple of my sweet spots. It
seems like a movie that could be easily remade for American audiences (in fact,
if dubbed films played anymore it could be released dubbed and inattentive
viewers might never even realize it was set in Germany), but I don’t think that
would be ultimately any more successful than the original. It’s hard for me to
recommend The Wave to anyone unless they share my own particular

6 out of 10