Could Nazism rise again in twenty-first century Germany? That is the question posed by Die Welle, Dennis Gansel’s German remake of American film The Wave. Based on Ron Jones’ The Third Wave social experiment, it investigates how easily fascism rose up in the build up to the second world war.
Rainer Wenger, a popular teacher portrayed by Jürgen Vogel, is placed in charge of the autonomy class for project week at a German high school. He decides to do an experiment to show the effectiveness of totalitarian governments in manipulating the public into fascism, essentially beginning a role-play among the class.
The class goes down well. Almost all the students subscribe to the idea, and over time Rainer commands them to do various things. What starts off fairly innocently – calling him “Herr Wenger”, having them stand up and be concise when speaking, and having them dress in a white-shirt uniform – soon spins off into something of a tsunami.
Soon, the members of Die Welle begin treating the pet project as a movement, tagging their logo in public places, treating non-members like dirt – sound familiar? A few classmates see the dark side of the project and begin to campaign against it, but fall mostly on deaf ears.
For its ideas, the film moves unrealistically quickly, and never really asks any questions beyond “can fascism still be a thing today” – which, of course, it is. It exists in the Middle East, in Africa… Knowing this in advance makes the film seem completely absurd, its message being lost, and just becoming a plain drama with no real motives or aims.
Perhaps to Germans there is still an element of tenderness to the concept, but for the onlooker it’s difficult to feel that it is actually investigating anything. From the very moment the students start to actually go with the idea you can work out that things aren’t going to go swimmingly.
Die Welle is well-acted but not well thought-out – too many clichés, a premise punctured by fact and realism, and an ending with heat brought from nothing. It’s aiming to make a big splash with German youths, but ends up something of a damp squib.