In April 1967 in Palo Alto, California, a history teacher by the name of Ron Jones attempted to introduce his high school pupils to the realities of fascism by encouraging them to form a kind of classroom Hitler Youth. The experiment had disturbing results and unsurprisingly perhaps, it has inspired a novel, a theatre play and a short film. Now it has been given the full feature film treatment in Dennis Gansel’s The Wave.
Relocated to present-day Germany, Gansel’s slick, fictionalised account of the event revolves around young, hip and spirited social science teacher Rainer Wenger (an utterly mesmerising JÃÂ¼rgen Vogel) who starts the experiment as part of a project about ‘autocracy’. What begins as an ambitious assignment, based on some basic rules and principles, develops within a few days into a genuine movement called ‘The Wave’ that soon grips the whole school, and ultimately culminates in a painful and devastating realisation as the violent final act unfolds.
The Wave had its UK premiere at the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival, where PAMELA JAHN talked to director Dennis Gansel to find out more about the dangers of playing dictator.
Pamela Jahn: Ron Jones’s experiment was meant to demonstrate the nature of dictatorship and fascism. What was your intention in reviving the story and in relocating it to Germany?
Dennis Gansel: I took the original event as a starting point, but Ron Jones’s experiment took place 40 years ago and things have changed a lot since then. My intention was to make a contemporary film with a very realistic approach that raises the question of whether what happened back then in California could actually happen again today in Central Europe and, in particular, in Germany. Most people in Germany know the story, because the novel is read in school. If you go to a German high school today, you’ll hear the kids say, ‘Third Reich, Nazis…not again!’ Since we seem to know our history so well, most people feel that we are immune to any form of totalitarianism, which I think is totally wrong and just a form of self-deception. I think that the group psychology that underlies such dictatorships is still very much alive. All it needs really is a charismatic leader with some strong ideas. No matter how much you know, or how cautious you are, that still doesn’t guarantee immunity from falling for a great team spirit or a seductive movement like The Wave.
PJ: How dangerous is it then to play dictator in school or in any other kind of environment?
DG: I think it’s incredibly dangerous. You just don’t play around with people like this, not in school or anywhere else. As an educational concept the experiment was a big mistake.
PJ: The film ends tragically, and violently, neither of which coincides with the true story nor with the novel. Why did you change the ending?
DG: I felt that The Wave was something that young people would think of as very cool, especially when I found out that the kids used the Wave greeting while we were filming. I felt strongly responsible as a German filmmaker to make a clear point by showing that if you play around with fascism, things may turn out badly. Therefore, I changed the ending with the clear intention of shocking the audience.
Interview by Pamela Jahn
Read the rest of the interview in our autumn print issue. The theme is cruel games, from the politics of blood sport in Death Race to sadistic power play in Korean thriller A Bloody Aria and Stanley Kubrick’s career-long fascination with game-playing. Plus: interview with comic book master Charles Burns about the stunning animated film Fear(s) of the Dark and preview of the Raindance Festival. And don’t miss our fantastic London Film Festival comic strip, which surely is worth the price of the issue alone!