In many ways screening The Wave (Die Welle) alongside And Along Come Tourists (Am ende kommen Touristen) at the Festival of German Film is an inspired piece of programming. The exploration of attitudes to Germany’s 20th-century actions is at the heart of both films, although their approaches are quite different.
Schoolteacher Rainer Wenger (Jürgen Vogel) is given the task of teaching the ‘Autocracy’ class during his school’s Project Week – a week in which the students have the opportunity to explore varying governmental models. When confronted by a student’s question as to whether a political movement such as Nazism could ever flourish in modern Germany, Wenger decides to try an experiment in which he moulds his class into a cohesive political movement called ‘The Wave’ – with frightening and unexpected consequences.
The Wave is a re-envisioning of a 1981 made-for-television version of the real-life events in an American high school in 1967, although by transplanting the setting and characters to modern-day Germany the story obtains a resonance it otherwise may not have achieved. The students are made to represent many facets of modern German youth, with those who claim no direct responsibility for their country’s recent past through to others who feel they carry a burden placed upon them by previous generations. Slackers and sporting types mix with outcasts and wannabes – the power of the film is in its portrayal of a disparate group coming together behind a cause many of them initially ridicule, simply due to a sense of belonging.
Vogel is impressive as Herr Wenger, with his initial brazen confidence transforming into concern at the result of his ‘experiment’ and then anger, frustration and eventually horror. The supporting cast, mostly young actors playing high school students, are generally adequate; Max Riemelt, who also starred in Napola (Elite für den Führer) under the direction of Dennis Gansel, stands out among his colleagues as Marco, while Frederick Lau has been nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category at the upcoming German Film Awards for his performance as Tim (along with the film itself for Best Film and Best Editing).
The direction of Gansel is tight, although a brief section about three quarters of the way through the film does seem to drag. The audience is by this stage well and truly entranced by the story, and the sense of impending doom is so strong that this period reduces the momentum before the shocking but seemingly inevitable denouement.
The Wave is a powerful and at times horrifying film that uses the natural advantage of its setting to make comment on the preconceptions and prejudices that must exist in a country still coming to terms with its past. Excellent performances from its leads combined with an amazing ‘based on real life’ premise allow the film to resonate on several levels. Highly recommended.Rating: