Case Number 22826: Small Claims Court


MPI // 2008 // 107 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 29th, 2011

The Charge

It's Powerful. It's Deadly. And It's Growing.

The Case

These days, we think of scientists as rational people in white coats in sterile conditions conducting carefully controlled experiments. While that might be true today, every science had its Wild West period: doctors infected themselves with diseases to test theories of transmission, Marie Curie died of radiation exposure, and early social scientists conducted bizarre experiments while trying to see how people react to authority. The curious need only look up the Stanford prison experiments or the work of Stanley Milgram to see that people will do apparently crazy things when pressured by others. Although not officially a social science experiment, the so-called Third Wave was an experiment by a high school teacher to show how fascism grows. It actually happened in 1967 in a California school. The case received a lot of attention over a decade later, and now a German filmmaker has fictionalized the story and transferred it to his country to create a volatile and telling drama entitled The Wave.

It's a sad and scary truth, but democracy is not a particularly good protection against fascism. The Weimar Republic had a government specifically modeled after American democracy, and when it came time to vote Hitler in as a permanent ruler, he swept the popular vote. However, we can be very complacent in modern times and wonder at our forbears' inability to see through fascism. The kids in Rainer Wenger's students are no different. They can't believe that anyone would fall for a totalitarian ruler like Hitler. He decides they need an experiment. It starts with uniforms and discipline, and even Wenger is surprised at home quickly his students take to the idea. It doesn't take long, though, before the experiment goes out of control.

Surprisingly, The Wave works on at least two levels. The first is the dramatic one. We have history to remind us of what has happened in previous fascist cultures (like Germany and Italy before and during World War II), and those with even a passing notion of what happened during the Milgram or Stanford prison experiments will know just how terribly wrong this situation can go. What's brilliant about The Wave is the fact that it remains compelling despite the fact that the audience will largely know what's going to happen. Writer/director Dennis Gansel (working from a novel by Todd Strasser) has crafted a set of characters who effectively show off the complex difficulties of the situation. At the center is Jurgen Vogel as Rainer Wenger, who has to deal with all the fallout of the emotions he's unleashed. Some of the kids are almost as impressive, with Jennifer Ulrich standing out as a student suspicious of Wenger's experiment.

The film also succeeds as a kind of instructional film. Obviously people can't go around turning the world's children into mini-fascists, so watching a film like The Wave is a strong second choice. I think people are understandably defensive about their own susceptibility to fascist tendencies. However, watching a film like The Wave can help us all process what it means to succumb to totalitarianism, which will hopefully make us all more vigilant when we see fascism closer to home. That is also largely the film's political message: we should draw parallels between what we see on the screen and our own lives, just as the characters are drawing parallels between themselves and history.

Finally, the film is brave for transferring this situation from California to Germany. As the original Wave experimenter Ron Jones points out, Germany is the only culture really studying the violence of its past to figure out how not to repeat it. To make a film that basically says we're just as susceptible to totalitarianism today as we were in 1939 is a brave act.

The Wave gets a solid DVD release. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer has a slick digital sheen. Detail is pretty strong, and color saturation looks spot on. Black levels are pretty solid as well. It's not quite reference quality, but the film looks good. The German 5.1 track does a great job balancing the dialogue with the film's insistent score. English subtitles are included.
Extras start with the film's trailer, and include a pair of interviews. The first is about three minutes with Ron Jones, the originator of the Wave experiment. He talks candidly about the original experiment and how it translated to the film. The other interview is with writer/director Gansel. He chats for four minutes or so about the origins of the project and his vision for it. Then we get seven minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from the set.

The Wave is not for everyone. It can be intense and difficult. Those looking for a quiet night with a movie will probably want to skip The Wave.

The Wave is the best kind of political film, one that works as both a lesson and an effective drama. Though it might be a bit hard-hitting for some audiences, The Wave is a solid dramatic film that's been given a decent DVD release. Well worth a rental for those interested in history, psychology, or drama.

The Verdict

The Wave is scary, but not guilty.

Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 82

Perp Profile
Studio: MPI
Video Formats:
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)

* English
* English (SDH)
* Spanish

Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Featurette
* Interviews
* Trailer

* IMDb

* Official Site