Germany, The Present: Rainer Wenger (Jorgen Vogel) is a middle-aged high school teacher who has been reluctantly tasked with teaching an optional class on the notion of "autocracy" during project week. A former anarchist himself, Wenger initially encounters gentle resistance from his teenage wards - who are predominately the indulged, privileged children of successful middle class intellectuals who have been so inculcated with the historical significance and conduct of the Nazis that they have come to believe that it would be impossible for a dictatorship such as the National Socialist Worker's Party to rise to dominance again. With this in mind, Wenger initiates a week-long practical experiment in the class in order to examine whether just such an event is truly possible. But as the class begin to coalesce around the authoritarian youth movement, which they name "The Wave",events begin to run out of control...
Like its recent German contemporary, The Experiment, "The Wave" is a fictionalized account of events which actually occurred in the US: "Das Experiment" was a reimagining of Philip Zimbardo's notorious "Stanford Prison" experiments (chronicled in his book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil) and "The Wave" is based on an actual class experiment which allegedly ran out of control in Pao Alto, California in the late sixties (and which was fictionalized by Morton Rhue/Todd Strasser in his book, The Wave (New Windmills)).
Dennis Gansel's film is a thought-provoking examination of the nature of unity, peer pressure and social affiliation in contemporary society which eschews easy conclusions about just who is susceptible to the corrupting nature power. In less talented hands it could have been an utterly pedestrian exercise, but Gansel explicitly (but subtly) demonstrates how the initially attractive notions of strength through social unity and cohesion can be perverted. Alarmingly, like the school principle who is initially won over by the way in which Wenger's Wave experiment appears to motivate his students, the audience finds itself seduced by the way in which the initially disparate and feckless students begin to work together as a unit in order to win at Water Polo and produce the school play, but to Gansel's credit when events inevitably take a turn for the sinister, he refuses to indulge in soap opera; his teenage subjects do not degenerate into faceless automatons but rather retain their very realistic personalities within the framework of their movement. One witnesses the march of the innocently unaware into the jaws of totalitarianism: when, for instance, they adopt a salute, they relate to the concept of it as "mellow, chilled-out" sign of social greeting rather than to the overtly sinister vaguely connotation that it has for outsiders (something which, one must inevitably conclude, also played out in the streets of nineteen thirties Germany amongst members of the Hitler youth).
Gansel also subtly examines the way in which the concept of tribal affiliation extends far beyond "The Wave". When his white-shirted protagonists face off against a group of anarchist punks, one is struck by the uniformity of the so-called rabidly individual anarchists. Similarly, when "the wave" turn out in droves to support the school water polo team, one is prompted to ponder the inherent uniformity that exists amongst "normal" sports fans who turn out in their colours to support their teams in everday life.
A brilliant depiction of the unwitting seduction of the gullible, "The Wave" is one of the most thought-provoking treatise on the corruption of social affiliation that you'll see in mainstream cinema.