About as subtle as the system of autocratic government it decries, Dennis Gansel’s “The Wave” delivers its message with more impact than insight. Partly drawn from the memorable 1981 stateside After-School Special of the same title, this forceful, super-slick German dramatization recounts a real-life high school experiment that went dangerously awry, although not as dangerously as depicted here. Riding a wave of positive buzz following its world premiere at Sundance, where rights sold to several territories, potential conversation-piece should do strong local biz and is ripe for another remake.
Though it’s not mentioned in the writing credits, Morton Rhue’s 1988 novel “The Wave” — a fictional retelling of the 1967 experiment conducted by Palo Alto, Calif., history teacher William Ron Jones (who served as a consultant on the film) — has become a staple of many a high school curriculum. In relocating the story to Germany, Gansel and co-scenarist Peter Thorwarth (drawing from Jones’ original account and a 1981 teleplay) pointedly raise the question of whether a Third Reich-style regime could emerge again — and find the answer to be an unambiguous yes.
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A youngish guy with a shaven pate and a hip, unconventional style, Rainer Wenger (Juergen Vogel) is stuck lecturing on autocracy (he prefers anarchy) during the school’s project week. He turns the lesson into a simulation, temporarily transforming his class of some 30 students into a microcosmic dictatorship.
Adopting drill-sergeant tactics, Rainer makes his students call him “Mr. Wenger”; rearranges seating so as to minimize cliquishness and maximize grade improvement; and proposes a uniform to eliminate class differences and individuality.
Far from resisting such strictures, the students embrace them quite readily, and for a while, the system — dubbed “the Wave” — seems to work. Marco (Max Riemelt) and Sinan (Elyas M’Barek) learn to play as a unit on the water polo team coached by Rainer (er, Mr. Wenger), while socially awkward Tim (Frederick Lau) stops getting bullied as his classmates come to his aid.
But as the Wave becomes the dominant presence on campus, pressuring others to join and scorning those who don’t, violence begins to percolate and resistance begins to stir. Seeing her friends get carried away, Marco’s girlfriend Karo (Jennifer Ulrich) drops out, while Tim becomes increasingly militant in his devotion to the Wave’s cause.
Though it’s robustly directed by Gansel (who previously explored the grooming of young fascists in “Before the Fall”), “The Wave” isn’t really drama so much as demonstration, and it’s interested in its characters only to the extent they can help prove its thesis. That’s offset somewhat by the film’s strong performances: Popular German thesp Vogel makes Rainer an appealing, misguided figure, while Ulrich and Lau are the standouts of a strong teen ensemble.
Tragic finale, which departs in a big way from what happened in the real-life experiment, feels at once calculated and predictable, leaving the viewer with little more than an unpleasant whiff of didacticism.
Production is aces, with vibrant widescreen camerawork, muscular editing and a dynamic rock soundtrack.