The Wave: movie review

A fictional twist on psychological experiments illustrating Germans' compliance during the Nazi regime, 'The Wave' explores one teacher's experience teaching about autocracy in a current-day German high school. 

By , Meet in the Lobby

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    Actor Jurgen Vogel faces down the barrel of a gun in director Dennis Gansel's 2008 film, 'The Wave.'
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3.5 / 5 stars

Some of the more controversial experiments in modern psychology have dealt with how far test subjects will go when told to do something. A few years before the infamous 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which student “officers” abused their peer “prisoners,” an exercise known as “The Third Wave” took place at a California high school. To illustrate the Germans’ complicity during the Nazi regime, a teacher motivated his students into creating a unified, anti-Democracy front that looked frighteningly familiar. Of course, it caught on like wildfire, later inspiring a TV movie, an award-winning novelization, and now filmmaker Dennis Gansel’s fictional take with a twist: The Wave takes place in a current-day high school in Germany, the original scene of the crime, so to speak. It’s an intriguing slant on the story, an occasionally damning portrayal of pointless power.

It’s taken a while for Gansel’s film to gain visibility here in the States; The Wave originally screened at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, followed by showings in about umpteen countries throughout ’08 and ’09 (It premieres on Sundance Selects video-on-demand June 8). But the delay hasn’t diminished the film as the tantalizing curiosity that it is. The script, by Gansel and Peter Thorwarth (writer-director of 1999′s Bang Boom Bang), hinges on its punk-rock style teacher, Rainer Wenger (skinhead-ish leading man Jurgen Vogel). He wears Ramones t-shirts to school, lets the kids call him by his first name, and is pumped up to teach a one-week track on anarchy. (Hey, he has to wear his Clash t-shirt somewhere, right?)

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When a boring old fart colleague snags the anarchy track, the popular Rainer is stuck teaching autocracy. On the first day of introducing the ideology to his class, Rainer finds his class can’t imagine a dictatorship could actually take place again in troubled Germany. So he decides to teach them a lesson: He quickly establishes a minor cult of personality, demands to be called “Herr Wenger” and gives his kids the intoxicating taste of mob power.

In directing The Wave, Gansel’s strengths are in the classroom. A solid, dependable young cast gives weight to his words; cinematographer Torsten Breuer gives urgency to the action, shooting the makings of a movement from the back of the room, and then zipping between kids with kinetic swish pans that don’t feel overdone. You can almost feel the clouds breaking for some of these students, the energy rippling within their burgeoning political minds.

When Gansel moves The Wave outside the school, the results are more of a mixed bag. There are some appropriately tense moments with a touch of teen naivete, as the students bring their fist-pumping force out into the streets, rabble-rousing and tagging up buildings. But as their self-propelled program evolves away from Wenger, we feel a little less gravity, a diminished focus. Instead, Gansel relies on an obvious story, that of a troubled student who translates his new feelings of pride into a dangerous obsession. There’s still some depth in the telling, though, from Wenger’s relationship with his wife, to the growing realization that The Wave may be going too far.

What happens to psychological test subjects when the game is finally over, when the leaders come clean with their lies? The effects can be devastating. Students of The Third Wave wept when teacher Ron Jones revealed the purpose of his lesson. The Stanford experiment lasted only six of 14 days due to widespread abuses. Gansel, clearly keen to the potential dangers, takes his fictional conclusion as far as it can go. Seems like he’s the teacher in this case, working out the hard lessons without anyone getting hurt.

Norm Schrager blogs at Meet in the Lobby.

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