WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
The end of the school year is approaching and the pupils are running out of steam. They need to be inspired, before they drop dead from boredom.
Enter teacher Rainer (Jürgen Vogel), who’s taking a week-long summer-term course on autocracy, while fuddy duddy teachers, in neighbouring classrooms, are teaching other political systems, such as anarchy – the one he really wanted.
Could Germany return to the days of a fascist dictatorship, he asks them. Of course not, they reply in unison. Challenging their certainty, he decides to use practical methods to teach them about autocracy – beginning by asking them to refer to him as Mr Wenger for the duration of the course.
By the middle of the week, the previously rebellious pupils are blindly following his every instruction, wearing a uniform, greeting him with a new salute and shunning fellow pupils who refuse to join their club.
But by the end of the week, their fanaticism has gone too far – so swept away by this wave of belonging are they that the first time they don’t listen to him all week is when he tries to cool them off and end his experiment.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
This fictionalised version of a real-life American experiment is given added poignancy by setting it in the last country to be brought to its knees by fascism – a country still desperate to shake-off all memories of its Nazi past.
Until “the wave” goes a little too far, this is a frighteningly believable demonstration of how gullible people can often fall for any system that makes them feel special – and how being part of a private club will make members do things way outside their comfort zone. As such, it’s all too clear to see how such groups as the Nazis and religious cults can get off the ground and flourish.
A weakness in the idea is that the wild and crazy things these pupils find themselves going along with are generally no more wild and crazy than listening to their teacher, wearing white T-shirts and practicing a new salute.
This makes the ideology seem rather lightweight – when there’s nothing at stake, there’s obviously less reason not to go along with it, but maybe that’s the point – you get people hooked with the small, seemingly irrelevant things before getting your hooks in, once they feel safe.
Vogel has a powerful central presence in the film as the pupils around him either fall under his spell – or rise up against him. But the supporting characters – from the pupils and the other teachers to family and friends of the protagonists – are generally simplistic caricatures, too numerous to keep abreast of who’s doing what, where, how and why.
It’s a sensitive and frightening film – all the more thought provoking for being set in Germany – but it leaves you rather colder than it needed to.