By James Greenberg
PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - Based on a real event from a California high school in 1967 and transposed to Germany today, “The Wave” is a cautionary tale about the roots of fascism. Seductive and horrifying at the same time, it suggests that anything is possible in today’s unstable environment.
An assured piece of filmmaking by Dennis Gansel, “Wave” captures the intoxicating power of conformity. Handled properly, it should generate controversy, leading to decent indie business. But this is a story ripe for an American remake.
The film opens with a rush of energy and doesn’t let up. Charismatic teacher Rainier Wegner (Jurgen Vogel) is driving to school with the Ramones’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” blasting in his car as the camera gazes at the calm life of the city passing outside. It’s not going to last long.
This is Project Week at school, and though Wegner, an aging radical with unconventional teaching methods, is disappointed that he doesn’t get to teach his students about anarchy, he dives headfirst into preparing for his class on autocracy. It’s a hard sell to the indifferent students. As one puts it, “What is there left to be against? All we want is to have fun.”
What follows is a textbook study of how fascism starts and takes hold. When Wegner asks if a dictatorship like Hitler’s would be possible in Germany today, the students either say no or don’t care.
But Wegner gets an idea for an experiment. The class elects him as leader, and in contrast to his usual easygoing style he demands that students call him Mr. Wegner and stand when they have something to say. The motto for the day is “strength through discipline.”
Once he’s got the students’ attention, things escalate within a week. Fascism historically has taken hold among an underprivileged, alienated population, and who is more alienated than high school students? They like the idea of dressing the same to reduce social pressures, and they start wearing white shirts. They name the group the Wave and create a logo and secret handshake reminiscent of a Nazi salute.
Much to their surprise, and Wegner‘s, they find that they like the power of unity, and soon this newfound discipline spills over to other school activities, and newcomers join the group. One student, Karo (Jennifer Ulrich), resists the rising conformity, but even her boyfriend, Marco (Max Riemelt), is smitten.
As in the rise of the Nazis, unstable and disturbed individuals latch on and feel powerful for the first time, and the most damaged become the lieutenants. That’s what happens to Tim (Fredrick Lau), a skittish student who no longer feels like an outsider. But when the insiders start bullying other students and violence erupts, Wegner realizes that things might have gone too far.
The genius of the screenplay by Gansel and Peter Thorwarth is that they recognize Wegner’s psychology and mixed feelings. His wife, Anke (Christiane Paul), who also teaches at the school, holds him accountable, and he admits he loves being idolized. Vogel is particularly brilliant in the film’s climactic scene as he becomes the dictator he feared. The cast of kids, especially Ulrich as the dissenter and Lau as the most vulnerable, are convincing.
Gansel addresses complex issues with first-class filmmaking. A pounding score of rock songs and music by Heiko Maile adds to the combustible mix, and cinematography by Torsten Breuer captures the action with a combination of outstanding hand-held and slow-motion camerawork.
The original Third Wave experiment in a Palo Alto high school did not end this way in 1967; Gansel has updated the climax to what could happen in schools today. There’s something additionally chilling about seeing it take place in Germany. But as the film makes abundantly clear, the roots of fascism grow everywhere.
Rainer Wegner: Jurgen Vogel
Tim: Frederick Lau
Marco: Max Riemelt
Karo: Jennifer Ulrich
Anke Wegner: Christiane Paul
Lisa: Cristina do Rego
Dennis: Jacob Matschentz
Sinan: Elyas M‘Barek
Bomber: Maximillian Vollmer
Kevin: Maximillian Mauff
Director: Dennis Gansel; Screenwriters: Dennis Gansel, Peter Thorwarth; Based on a short story by: William Ron Jones; Producers: Christian Becker, Nina Maag; Director of cinematography: Torsten Breuer; Production designer: Knut Loewe; Music: Heiko Maile; Costume designer: Ivana Milos; Editor: Ueli Christen.