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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 8 SEPTEMBER 2011 — German is notoriously hard to learn as a second language, and even if you succeed, you have to contend yourself with the outré reward of understanding everything Hitler said. It is one thing to watch the Nazi leader on film and read his purposely simplistic text, wondering how the nation that produced Hegel, Kant and Schopenhauer could give credence to what he said. When you can actually listen, however, you catch his brutal charisma and the incandescence of his demagoguery. If you were to listen long enough, and if you needed something to make you believe in yourself and your place in the world, would you eventually follow him or someone like him?

That is the question posed by Dennis Gansel in his film The Wave (Die Welle); although it is not until the end that we hear a Hitler-style speech, we know to expect one. As with many German films, The Wave is social criticism, but at its heart, it is a political drama, and political movies, like romantic comedies, must be forgiven their predictability.

The nominal political question, asked at the beginning, is simple: could fascism happen in Germany again? For a non-German, that may not be particularly interesting, but the true political question, and the one that makes the film rewarding, is the one each viewer, regardless of background, is begged to ask: if fascism were to happen again, would I come to love it?

The film’s unlikely source for that dilemma is a left-wing high-school teacher, Reiner Wenger (Jürgen Vogel). He teaches at a progressive school in a deliberately unnamed German city. Instilling a love of democracy remains a national calling in Germany. During a week-long democracy project, students are divided into groups, each focusing on a different form of government.  Reiner is assigned autocracy; it so revolts him, he pleads with the teacher who drew anarchy to switch but is refused by his colleague, who suspects that Reiner may embrace anarchy all too closely.

Dennis Gansel: The Wave (The white shirts)

Facing cynicism from his students, Reiner decides that the best way to explain autocracy is to require them to participate in it.  Normally on a first-name basis with his students, he makes them call him Herr Wenger.  He has them raise their hands to give answers and to stand when speaking.  The class adopts a uniform: white shirt and jeans. They take on a name, The Wave, and they develop a salute — a smart, waving motion of the right hand.  Because authority, if exercised and obeyed wisely, gets things done, class participation and student morale improve. The kids love it for the camaraderie and for the purpose it brings to their lives, even though, objectively, there is no purpose to being in The Wave other than to instill the sense of belonging.  They pull together and become a unit, but because fascism cannot restrain itself, they quickly become a gang that will live on when project week is over.  In the hands of an organized band of adolescents, that kind of energy can only lead to tragedy.  Reiner must face not only the totalitarian devil within but the devils he has let loose in the name of enlightenment.

That a story in which so much starts with such good intentions and so quickly goes horribly wrong appears plausible is a tribute to the script (by Gansel and Peter Thorwarth), the unobtrusive direction and the cast.  As in most high-school movies, some of the kids look old enough for graduate school, but we somehow believe that these actors are still children — big, potentially dangerous children, but children still; we see it in their faces, in their scruffy clothes, in their slouching postures and most of all, in their ability to convey that type of adolescent naiveté that is so sure of its own sophistication.

What holds it all together is Vogel. Robust and bald, he plays Reiner as a particularly German version of the heroic tough guy: a man of strength whose barely disguised vulnerabilities threaten to break through his stoic crust at any moment. The East German-born actress Jennifer Ulrich makes a difficult role work: she plays Karo, the kind of pretty girl who, in American high-schools, becomes head cheerleader or homecoming queen. She manages to make Karo’s transition into a resistance fighter — Rosa Luxemburg as a babe — plausible and affecting.

Because of Germany’s burden of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past), setting the story there adds a chilling context and amplifies the message, but the film is based on a true American story: in 1967, a Palo Alto high-school teacher named Ron Jones tried just such an experiment to demonstrate how ordinary Germans could have turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. He had to end it after five days when perils of autocracy, from ostracization to violence, started to take hold.

There have been many attempts over the years to make the consequences of Nazi ideology a uniquely German problem. One notorious example was the 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, by the American writer Daniel Goldhagen.  Would that it were that simple.  In lumbering prose and with the kind of conclusory reasoning that would get a lawyer nowhere in a court of law, the author laid blame for the participation by ordinary Germans in the Holocaust on what he claimed was a culturally instilled "eliminationist anti-Semitism."  Soldiers of the United States military had already committed the atrocities at My Lai, and others would later abuse prisoners at Abu Ghraib.  It would be easy to say that ordinary Americans had a cultural predisposition to kill Vietnamese and to torture and degrade Iraqis. The harder, meaner truth is that all societies harbor regular people ready to exercise the brutality that autocracy lets loose on anyone designated by higher authority as unerwünscht (undesirable) or just different.  Is that uniquely German? Unfortunately, as Ron Jones’s experiment and The Wave remind us, the answer is no. Those regular people just might be us..

A dual U.S. - German national, Alan Behr is co-head of the Art Law Practice at Alston & Bird LLP in New York. He last wrote on the Egyptian photographer Yasmina Chatila for Culturekiosque.

Headline image: Dennis Gansel: The Wave 

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