The Wave

| November 25, 2011

A chilling endeavor from Germany, The Wave tells the story of a week-long high school class in autocracy. Defined as a form of government with a single, omnipotent ruler at its center, autocracies generally cover totalitarian governments, dictatorships, and monarchies. As the class studies the conventions and origins of autocracy, their charismatic teacher (Jurgen Vogel) takes on the role of the group’s all-powerful leader; setting rules and guidelines for conduct in and out of the classroom. The group quickly adopts a uniform and a salute; they recruit new members and plaster their logo all over town; all in the name of their new society: The Wave.
The film is amazing in that no matter how crazy it gets, every plot point is well-grounded in a very realistic world. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to learn that this was based on real events, because things like the Stanford Prison Experiment and other such psychological studies are common subjects in schools today. The ideas at work in these real-world scenarios concerning conformity, and corruption in power make the fictional events of The Wave completely and horrifically believable.
Ironically, it isn’t until the students begin to conform to the rules of the class and become a single-minded unit that their individual characters begin to emerge. This is partly due to the fact that the film gets to the principles of fascism fairly early, but it’s easy to see that it is their participation in The Wave that sparks specific changes and reversals in each of these characters.
Setting aside Jurgen Vogel’s performance as Mr. Wenger for a moment, many of the students’ performances are beyond note-worthy. It’s interesting to see even the more minor characters like Dennis (Jacob Matschenz) and Ferdi (Ferdinand Schmidt-Modrow) emerge from this transformation completely different, and that it happens without the audience noticing the shift. Dennis, for example, at one point establishes himself as a sort of unofficial second-in-command for The Wave, while Ferdi’s class clown personality is all but stripped away.
The principle student characters include Marco (Max Riemelt), an introverted athlete from a broken home; Karo (Jennifer Ulrich), Marco’s girlfriend and The Wave’s biggest critic; and Sinan (Elyas M’Barek), a troubled teen who finds some direction within the group. All these performances are great, but arguably the most important character in the film is Tim (Frederick Lau). Tim takes the theoretical principles of the Wave to heart very early in the film. The sense of community and purpose defines his character from day one of the class, and is easily the most disturbing element of the film. Tim’s arc may annoy some viewers who find his early commitment to The Wave and subsequent anxiety too predictable. But one could argue that Tim gives the film an invaluable sense of inevitability. The film tensely and relentlessly builds to its climax, and even if the audience guesses the specifics of the final scene, it wouldn’t make it any less satisfying.
Of course, at the center of the film is Jurgen Vogel, who plays The Wave’s not-so-hypothetical Fuhrer. Everything Mr. Wenger does comes from a place of pure education. Instilling rules and uniformity among his students to try to demonstrate the dominant ideals of autocracy is driven solely and innocently by his want to somehow curb his students’ standard apathy. The effectiveness of his teaching becomes intoxicating to him, and is the primary reason he chooses to remain blind to The Wave’s extra-curricular activities until late in the film. Again, this may be annoying to some viewers, but teachers watching the film will at least be able to relate to Wenger’s want to maintain his connection to his students.
Special features include an Interview with writer/director Dennis Gansel, and a behind-the-scenes featurette. All said and done The Wave is well worth your time and money, and you won’t want to miss this one.

About the Author:

Joe Sanders Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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