20 November, 2008

Adenoid Hynkel

So here's the thing.

There's a particularly illuminating moment early in The Wave (see the trailer here). A high school teacher taking a class on autocracy asks the class for examples of autocratic rule. One student suggests the Third Reich. And the entire class groans.

You see, The Wave (Die Welle) is a German film, and the class is in a German school. And that one moment perfectly illustrated how the German youth of today must feel about the war. You can easily imagine that they have had the horrors of Nazism drummed into them at every point, told and told again how the Third Reich took hold and that it must never occur again, to the point where they're almost immune to the lesson. It's just another person telling them that Hitler was bad, and they've heard it all before a dozen times every year.

So the teacher decided to set an example about how an autocratic movement takes hold, starting by setting up a few rules. If you want to speak, stand up - after all, standing improves the circulation. Address the teacher formally. They form themselves into a movement, which they decide to call "the wave". And over time new ideas are introduced - a simple uniform (white short, black trousers), a salute, a symbol. And at the centre of this movement is the teacher as dictator. The movement creates new bonds for the students, with some former outcasts surprised to find themselves accepted. More people look to join the movement, while a small number of students are attacked for thir criticism of the wave. But then the teacher realises just how much his demonstration has gotten out of control.

The Wave was one of the few films in the film festival that was sold out, which was a bit surprising to me. I wasn't aware of any significant reputation around the film or any obvious elements with an inbuilt audience, and I just saw it because the description in the festival book sounded interesting - and, from talking to a few people I know who also saw the film, I suspect that's probably true for most of the audience. And we all saw a film that was well-made, involving, and enjoyable, but with some real flaws.

The first problem relates to believability. Everything in the film takes place over the course of one week, starting on Monday and ending on Saturday. Now, the film is apparently inspired by real events, so for all I know the actual story might have run over that timeframe, but it doesn't feel long enough. A week is a long time in politics, but it's a short time for a political system, especially in a high school where there is already a strong established social structure that the movement has to overcome. In the space of one week, it grows from a single class to fill the entire school hall, breaking down existing structures and offering acceptance for the hated outcasts, and while I can see that speed as demonstrating the ease for this kind of movement in taking hold, it seemed unbelievable. Maybe if it was set over a year, or even just a single term, I could easily believe it, but to me a week strained credibility.

The other problem was that the characters were a little underdeveloped. To a degree that's understandable - in a 100 minute film, you're not going to have fully developed characters for every person in the school class, but the teacher is the only person where you feel they've actually tried to give any depth to. If we're going to buy the seductiveness of the autocracy, we need to see how different people with differing views get drawn into the movement, but we never get that. This is particularly true for one particular character, a social outcast who finds particular meaning and acceptance in the Wave. The kid is already so obviously troubled and getting into it too much, even after just the first lesson, that I would have put an end to the movement right then. And as the week proceeds, the kid moves to the point where he sleeps outside the teacher's house to guard against some vague threat, and yet the teacher does nothing in response to these clear danger signs. It becomes obvious very quickly that this kid will ultimately be the undoing of the Wave, eliminating a lot of the suspense of the film.

But, for the film's flaws, it is entertaining. J├╝rgen Vogel gives an excellent performance as the teacher who finds his experiement slipping away from him, while the film addresses some interesting issues about human nature in a thrilling and energetic way. It's certainly not boring. I probably will never revisit the film, but I certainly am glad to have seen it.


eT said...

Some of us oldies were exposed to the 1981 telemovie at school. Seems to have worked so far: I've yet to experience any overwhelming urges to annex the Sudetenland.

On the other hand, no-one's managed to offer me a satisfactory explanation of the reason for exposing us to the movie adaptation of the Uruguayan rugby team's cannibalistic ordeal in the Andes. The potential of the New Zealand education system generating a cohort of unthinking neo-fascists is not beyond the realms of possibility, but the prevalence of inexpensive takeaway food outlets surely mitigates against outbreaks of modern-day cannibalism.

p.s. Nice Chaplin reference in the title.

Matthew L said...

Thank you. The post was originally going to be called "The Great Dictator", but I decided that name would be too easy to understand.

I had no idea they made an earlier version, but I just looked it up on the IMDb, and there it is. Interesting to see that that version (and apparently the actual experiment) were in American schools, since I quite liked the idea of it all being in a German school. But I can see it would be rather disturbing to see something like that happen in America, a country that (eventually) stood up against that sort of system.

As for Alive, I remember enjoying that film when I saw it. But that film came out 15 years ago - I feel old.