“The Nazis sucked – we get it.” So sigh the high-school kids in this cautionary German riff on the allure of fascism. Despite being sick to death of Adolf popping up in history class like an embarrassing old relly who won’t quit crashing their parties, they still plump for the ‘Autocracy’ option in Project Week. Why? Because it’s taught by hip, unorthodox, Ramones T-shirt-wearing Rainer Wenger (Jürgen Vogel). Bummed he didn’t get assigned ‘Anarchy’, he decides to shake things up with a role-playing experiment that transforms the class into a small-scale dictatorship. Only Wenger doesn’t foresee just how immersed he and his pupils will get in such a dangerous ‘game’…
Favouring edgy pace over philosophical cud-chewing, co-writer/director Dennis Gansel’s film wants for subtlety. But it does whip us up in the experiment’s snowball momentum. Dubbing their new movement The Wave, the class initially respond with joking enthusiasm to its ‘strength through discipline’ credo, dubbing Rainer ‘Mr Wenger’ and donning white-shirt uniforms. But an unexpected, euphoric sense of community soon takes hold, turning the light mood sinister. Outsiders are bullied; violence erupts.
Believable characters lend weight to the film’s ‘it could be you’ moral schtick, Gansel showing how fascism preys on already festering discontent. When popular, bossy Karo (Jennifer Ulrich) refuses to conform, even her under-the-thumb boyfriend (Max Riemelt) and envious sidekick Lisa (Cristina do Rego) begin to cold-shoulder her. As for the awkward, disturbed Tim (Frederick Lau)… well, just imagine the kind of influence having a bunch of impressionable kids remoulded into an SS unit would hold over any closet nutter.
Though inspired by a real-life high-school experiment in late-’60s California, this goes much further, building to a shock finale that unflinchingly takes the movement to its logical, awful conclusion. Packed into a single week, the class mutation at times feels too much like a human version of Gremlins (one false move… voila! Instant monsters!) to ring wholly true. Still, transposed to latter-day Germany, it begins to resonate with reminders that, historically, darker, more incomprehensible things have happened.