Wave Goodbye

German director Dennis Gansel’s political allegory The Wave is based on a real event that took place in a Californian history class in 1967, when an impassioned history teacher laid down draconian new rules by way of introducing his students to fascism and was surprised to see the teenagers follow them to the letter.

Now transposed to modern-day Germany, we first meet Rainer Wegner (Jürgen Vogel), a hopelessly trendy teacher in a Ramones T-shirt and canvas satchel, as he races his car to work. Disappointment awaits - a rival teacher has taken the class on rock and roll anarchy and he must teach boring old autocracy. Stupid Hitler and all that stuff, say the kids on the first day; the jock, the hippy, the goth and the hot girl united in eye-rolling ennui. But Wenger has a trendy plan. He’ll subvert their expectations by turning the classroom into a microcosm of dictatorship, with him as the glorious leader.

Under the teacher’s charismatic instruction, the slouchy, lippy teenagers straighten up and fly right with implausible alacrity, adopting a white-shirted uniform and rediscovering personal grooming. The new class slogan, “Strength Through Discipline” has clearly struck a chord. By Wednesday, they have promulgated a floppy-armed salute, like someone describing the contours of a recumbent Sophia Loren. Thursday sees the class scrawl a graffito of flaming waves throughout the town while developing a snippy attitude towards outsiders and a not-the-brightest collective mentality, a C+ hive mind.

As the power-tripping Wenger surveys his new-build Reich, remnants of his liberal consciousness cause an eye to twitch. What Would Joey Ramone Do? Also, his wife doesn’t like it. The experiment continues apace, despite the efforts of a red-shirted dissenter (Jennifer Ulrich), who has cottoned on to ze movement’s malign momentum and made a myspace page about it. Just in time too. The kids have taken to pointing guns at punks, the point at which the already slack narrative finally loses its hold, the nub of truth worn down to didactic nudges and calculated contrivance. Friday holds little surprise.

More props than characters, the young ensemble are efficiently commanded by the veteran Vogel but are less convincing when playing soldiers amongst themselves. Although he touches off themes like teenage alienation and parental disinterest, Gansel turns an interesting premise into a grasping, over-extended trudge through the bullet points of totalitarianism. The Wave has things to say, but lacks the guile, wit and dramatic innovation to say them well.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

"What Would Joey Ramone Do?"

I believe he would "rock the roof off it" and blow up the school, if I remember my Rock'n'Roll High School correctly.

Also, wasn't this story made into an Afterschool Special back in the '70s? Rings a faint, distant bell...