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The Wave: how a US classroom experiment influenced German cinema’s most terrifying lesson

22 June, 2015 — by Ted Wilkes0

The Wave (Die Welle) was released in 2008 and translates a terrifying experiment to a suburban Germanic town. Here we take a look at its legacy.


Before I begin, a small prologue: I was lucky enough to go to Prague in summer 2013 with my girlfriend to see the sights, sample the local beer and spend some time away with her.

I am an unashamed political junkie and thankfully my patient travelling companion was willing to indulge this and take a tour around the underground Communist bunkers that were built in the city during the Cold War.

What stuck with me from the tour was the guide, a young Czech national who left me with these words [I slightly paraphrase here]: “Some people in my country would have Communism back tomorrow, but that would be the worst thing for my country.” After seeing what he had shown me across his city I couldn’t help but agree.

What does this have to do with 2008 German film The Wave (Die Welle) and Fascism? Let me explain with another tangent…

In the first week of April 1967 Ron Jones was fired from his job as a History teacher from Cubberly High School in Palo Alto, California. His crime? He taught his students about the evils of fascism. A rather straightforward idea one would think.

However, for five days in April, Mr Jones turned his classroom into his own totalitarian state without the children under his care realising. The most frightening lesson is that he was able to do it with surprising ease following the examples from some of the ‘greatest’ dictators from history.

The Wave translates Ron Jones’s experiment to a suburban Germanic town during the students’ enrichment week, where they are forced to take classes on various political systems. Teacher Rainer Wenger (Jurgen Vogel) is dismayed to find that he is unable to teach a class on his favourite subject (anarchism) and is forced to take the autocracy class, a subject he is sick of. His students are fed up of hearing about it too; German guilt is something they have been bombarded with since starting school.

Upon arrival in the class Wenger mocks the idea of autocracy, but when challenged by his students that a dictatorship would never be able to be established in modern Germany he begins Jones’s experiment to show them how easily it is to be manipulated into following an ideology you detest without even realising it.

He tells them how being one unit can improve the community as a whole, he also uses his charm, finds euphemistic language to disguise his true meaning and gives inspirational speeches.

Mimicking the beginnings of the Third Reich he dresses students in similar clothing, gives them simple principals to follow to “improve them” and a symbol to unite them under. Initially the group has only positive results: their grades improve, members reform their previous bad habits and they look out for one another and start to build a community around the class.

However, they also start to exhibit some of the traits of the Nazi SA (or brown shirts); alienating those who aren’t in The Wave, vandalising property and being violent. All things that Wenger did not anticipate, despite history having already written the narrative for him.

He was supposed to be a benevolent dictator and despite the bad that his students are now doing, Wegner refuses to confront what he has done and sees through their actions to only the good that he is doing for them. Wegner becomes Hitler without even realising it; just as he students become Nazis.


Parallels between Wenger and Hitler are easy to see. He is also a failure at his desired profession (teacher/artist), is looking for answers in another failed system (anarchism, and in Hitler’s case the Weimar Republic) and is a charismatic man who believes in himself and his abilities. He sees a better world if only people would be more like him.

No matter our knowledge of history and what the man will become, in the beginning of the film we are forced to identify with Wenger as our hero. He is the underdog who is being ‘repressed’ by the bureaucratic system above him and talked down to by his peers, all the trademarks of a stock Cinderella story. We have our man to root for and seemingly fall into the trap of doing so.

Wenger is framed at this point much like any other eccentric teacher in any other film where a mentor figure leads a group of disaffected youths to believe in themselves through the power of education. We see him as a character similar to John Keaton (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society, but this will change as Wegner’s attempts to alter their perceptions of the world will be in “Sieg Heil”s rather than the wholly more playful act of having students stand on their tables and read poetry in a cave with some local girls with fuzzy heads and lustful intentions.

The idea of mentor as a shape-shifter is nothing new in cinema, but it is often more overtly foreshadowed inside the text, one of the greatest sleight-of-hand tricks that the film plays on us. We never truly know what he will become.

the wave film

This isn’t the only aesthetic that Director Dennis Gansel draws on for the film’s style. One of the largest and most sinister influences is the work of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. Just as in her most infamous work Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) the desire for uniformity is celebrated through the fetishised straight lines and the establishment of German dominance is exerted through acutely low camera shots of typically Aryan people.

This particular technique is most noticeable during scenes with Wenger where the only time he is shot from above is when he too is looking down on people; allowing us the delicious taste of the power that he too is feeling at this moment. For that fleeting second we too are allowed to stand on a pulpit addressing a crowd without the anxiety of having to deliver any speech. Basking in the adoration of said crowd it is hard not to imagine how and why those who too find themselves there allow it to go to their heads.

die-welle-the-wave-film crowd

The ending packs the film’s most powerful punch. With his students now radicalised Wenger can finally see the mistake he has made and decides to call the movement off in a town hall style meeting at the school. This setting is similar to the first gatherings of the newly mobilised Nazi party before the Munich Beer Hall Putch, the moment that the movement took its first steps towards power.

In the film though rather than Hitler/Wenger delivering a rallying cry for further action he decides to offer an apology for misleading his students/members, having them confront their own negative actions head on.

However, it turns out that his students aren’t ready to let go of the movement and one who is particularly hurt by the disbanding of the class creates a scene that causes Wenger to be arrested. A frightening glimpse into what may have become of the Nazis if Hitler were to have deserted the party at this key moment. If the hydra were to have its head cut off, it would simply grow two more.

die-welle-the-wave-film ending

In the final image we see Wenger in the back of a police car alone with his thoughts realising that his noble attempts to make the students better people have failed. In this we see our ‘Hitler’ as a normal man stripped of his title of ‘Fuhrer’ and deserted by the movement that he inspired.

He is now just a loner and a failure who was caught up in his own ideas of grandness and purpose. In this frightening alternative reality we are forced to confront the fact that not only are we capable of being conned into believing in radical ideas as the students were, but also that it might be possible for us to mistakenly become the instigators of radical ideas despite our good intentions for them.

This is a masterful stroke from Gansel offering not only an apology for a German public that was ‘brainwashed’, but shows us the haunting reality that dictators potentially aren’t the monsters we often like to see them depicted as on film, but flawed individuals who potentially began their movements with only honourable intentions.

He is not the mindless killing machine of Jaws, the monster who knows know better in Frankenstein or even the tortured Samara clawing her way out of the well in The Ring to hunt us down for our worshiping of technology (another article) but one of us.

Gansel has suggested that German students have grown tired of covering the Third Reich believing that because of the saturation of knowledge regarding the horrors of the Nazi regime they are immune to a potential resurgence of the hard right. He claims the youth of Germany are fed up of hearing about a period of history that they take no ownership of and are as disgusted at as the rest of the world.

However, with the resurgence of the hard right across most of Europe (the continent that should know better having witnessed first-hand the brutality of totalitarianism) there is more need for films like this brave enough to ask of us the most frightening questions. Ones that often by the time they are asked are too late to answer.

For more in-depth and slightly wayward film analysis, check out our movie features section including this look-back at Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The Wave: how a US classroom experiment influenced German cinema's most terrifying lesson
The Wave: how a US classroom experiment influenced German cinema's most terrifying lesson
The Wave (Die Welle) was released in 2008 and translates a terrifying experiment to a suburban Germanic town. Here we take a look at its legacy.
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