"The Wave": Head Below Water By Burak Göral

in 27th Istanbul International Film Festival

by Burak Göral

In this so called ‘civilized’ world or in conformist societies, it seems there is not much against anything, at least for the young high school pupils in the German movie The Wave (Die Welle). Anarchism is dead now and their opinion on autocracy is that it’s impossible today because “we are much too enlightened”. If you are a teacher like Rainer Wenger (Jürgen Vogel), of course, you try to disprove their opinion and make a difference for the indifferent students. But as a huge dilemma, this symbolic piece of anarchism goes out of control, consistent with its nature. The line between anarchism and fascism is not clear at all. While dealing with this dilemma, The Wave digs deep into the roots of fascism.

The film is based on American author Todd Strasser’s most famous work The Wave, which itself is based on real events that take place at a Californian high school in April 1969. Its first screen adaptation was in 1981, as a 44-minute TV piece directed by Alexander Grasshoff, and which was acclaimed by the audience. Transposed to Germany today, this new adaptation of the novel by German director Dennis Gansel is fluent, stylish, and dramatically well-acted.

The story takes place when the teacher Rainer Wenger takes a chance with the school’s project week to challenge his pupils with his unconventional teaching methods. We often see him with jeans and a Ramones T-shirt. He is aging but still radical. He wants to teach about anarchy, but the school management gives him autocracy, National Socialism. Disappointed, he wants to experiment with his pupils. It all begins with some new rules: stressing the sense of community and a new dress order with loosening exercises in instruction. All carry white shirts. But it’s not enough; there would be a name added by its own indication. The pupils are now The Wave, a uniform mass in white, which soon intervenes and suppresses everyone who does not want to join in. The basic fascist idea takes possession of them, and the youngsters carry some marks on the white shirts. They slowly become aggressive and only a few will understand “what’s going on”, like Karo (Jennifer Ulrich) as she wants to warn everybody around her. Claiming leadership of a fascist group, Rainer never listens to his colleague or his pregnant wife Anke (Christiane Paul). To nobody’s surprise, The Wave expands and gets out of control…

Dennis Gansel is the most appropriate director for this project, especially because of his previous film Napola (2004) which is also based on fascism and youth. He wants to show teenagers that The Wave is still fresh and possible. The novel “The Wave” is already 27 years old but, nevertheless, it’s arguably more relevant and up-to-date than ever. Not only for the German community, but for all other communities as well. The oppressive atmosphere reminds one of the thematically similar The Experiment (Das Experiment, 2001), but The Wave is more attractive because of the young actors’ energy and German actor Jürgen Vogel’s dynamic performance. Vogel is very effective both as a teacher and an authority figure.

Director Gansel targets the young audience and chooses to employ an MTV style to address them. All scenes are stylized and he succeeds. He also proves that autocracy has no nation, as the message is so clear: in this unstable environment, it’s highly possible to turn to this dangerous road. But also it’s the only problem of the film that the end of the road is perceived a bit early.