Die Welle is a 2008 German drama film, based on real-life social experiment called The Third Wave. The experiment took place at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California in 1967 and was undertaken by history teacher Ron Jones in his »Contemporary World« history class. Jones, who was unable to explain his students how the German population could have claimed ignorance of the extermination of the Jewish people during WWII, decided to demonstrate it instead. He started the movement called »The Third Wave« (or simply »The Wave« in the film) but was forced to terminate it after only five (!) days because things started to get completely out of control. Die Welle, although set in contemporary Germany, follows the events (as they were later documented by Jones) that happened during those unfortunate five days.
Rainer Wenger (as they named Jones’s character in the film), is a middle-age rocker and anarchist who is forced to teach a class on autocracy. But when he finds out that his students don’t believe a dictatorship could ever be established in Germany again, he starts an experiment to demonstrate how easily the masses can in fact be manipulated into a fascist regime. He begins by demanding that all students (who previously called him by his first name, Rainer), start to address him as »Herr Wenger«. He also starts to enforce strict classroom discipline – he demands that they stand up when they’re speaking and that they talk in a fewest words possible. He quickly emerges as an authoritarian figure – and surprisingly, the class is immediately more engaged than usual. Especially this one student is enthusiastically, almost fanatically eating his every word. The next day they start wearing white uniforms that separate them from the other students and consequently they start to form a tight community. They even create a distinctive salute for the group (similar to the one of the Nazi regime). There’s only one girl, Mona, who’s disgusted with how her classmates are embracing fascism and who leaves the project group in protest, while the others don’t see any connection with fascism in their behaviour.
On the third day the experiment takes on a life of its own. Other students start to join in and they start to segregate themselves from non-members completely (stopping non-members from entering the classroom for example).
Although thematically extremely interesting, I did not like how they approached to this rather delicate subject. What bothered me the most was that while Jones decided to terminate the movement on the fourth day, right after he saw that things were dangerously spinning out of control, Wenger gets so engaged in his project that he loses any sense of objectivity – he even gets in an argument with his wife when she confronts him about his bad influence on the kids and about the dangers of the movement. His reaction seems unbelievably irrational and irresponsible, childish even. He still decides to do the right thing in the end, but it doesn’t end well since the fanatical student doesn’t want the movement to end.
The ending was (as the director later explained) inspired by the Emsdetten school shooting that happened in Germany only two years before the film was released. Nevertheless, it felt a bit too dramatical, predictable and above all: unnecessary. I have nothing against films about high school shootings – but if they wanted to make a film about Emsdetten incident, they should focus only on that – we should get properly introduced to this student, we should get to know his background story, his family – we should get to know from where his problems and frustrations came from (a great example of a well done film exploring a school shooting incident is Estonian drama Klass from 2007). Die Welle‘s ending seemed forced, as if they tried to end the story in the most dramatic way possible – but what they really did is that they combined two very complex real-life stories that should each be explored on its own.
Directed by: Dennis Gansel
Written by: Johnny Dawkins and Ron Birnbach
Starring: Jürgen Vogel, Frederick Lau, Max Riemelt, Jennifer Ulrich
Running Time: 107 minutes