Die Welle opens inside a car careening around corners while the driver belts along to a cover of The Ramones’ Rock and Roll High School. Mr. Wenger (Jürgen Vogel) is at the wheel. He’s on his way to school where he’s teaching a segment on autocracy. Wenger is a dynamic teacher but he’s disappointed because he preferred to teach anarchy. Wenger begins a discussion on dictatorships. When Nazi Germany comes up, the students make a collective eye-roll. Being Germans, they are exhausted on discussing the topic because it would “never happen again.” Couldn’t it though? Wenger counters and thus it begins.
The class discusses the attributes required for a dictatorship: uniforms, a code of conduct, discipline. The students begin wearing white shirts, they exclude those who dissent. The usual traits that help students excel, such as smarts and the ability to verbalize a point are ignored. Following the code is most important. And, what starts happening? A logo and a hand gesture are created. New members can join at the invitation of current members. They name their movement, The Wave. They graffiti. They use body guards. They tattle on dissenters. Students are dropping other classes to attend this one. In one week, the students have gone from being ambivalent to cult-like reverence for Wenger, who is drinking his own Kool-Aid. Sounds familiar? This is Hitler and Third Reich fodder. The sense of belonging and conformity appeal to most, except a few who are squashed. All in less than one week in Wenger’s class.
Within this week, the majority of the class is aggressively crossing lines with an anything-for-the cause attitude. One student takes things to the extreme with a gun and, while seeming plausible, it comes off as forced.
The movie was inspired by true events that happened in the Palo Alto classroom of history teacher Ron Jones in the late 1960s. He said the experiment results scared him deeply because of how fast and easily the students fell into the conformity when just days earlier they guffawed as they argued that history couldn’t repeat itself.
Director: Dennis Gansel
Genre: Drama that plays like a thriller
Run time: 107 minutes