Could Nazi Germany happen again? Could an autocracy take hold in a democratic country?
These are the questions posed by a teacher in modern Germany, a teacher who is forced to teach about autocracy to high school students for one week. When he asks those questions, many of his students say they believe the sway the Nazis had on German society could never take place again. The teacher, Mr. Wegner, first asks his students what is needed for an autocracy to take place. They come up with several answers.
One says a sense of nationalism is needed and another contradicts that, saying pride in your country is not wrong; another says uniformity. While some say uniforms help to erase class and social position, others say they repress individuality and creativity.
Wegner tells the class to wear a white shirt with blue jeans as a uniform to class every day.
Then something happens: the majority of students fall in line right away: They march in place when ordered, they stand to speak, they call the teacher “Herr Wegner” instead of his first name, they come up with the name of their movement (The Wave), and they even come up with a salute.
One thing this film shows is how people, especially those marginalized by society, can lose themselves in a cause because they finally belong.
That person is Tim, a student who embraces The Wave and takes his belief to the next level. One could easily see him as a Nazi brown shirt harassing people in the streets of 1930s Germany.
Two students object and are ostracized by the adherents to The Wave.
And, it seems, Wegner basks in the glow of his students’ adulation, to the point he changes in ways his wife dislikes. His relationship with her is an indicator of how his class is progressing.
It’s the classic cult of personality that is one of the aspects of autocracy. The ending is predictable but powerful nonetheless. The upshot is yes, fascism is possible today anywhere.
The Wave is an excellent study of how small behavioral changes can affect people’s perception of the world around them. It also portrays the inevitable groupthink that goes hand in hand with submission to the will of the group, whether that be a party, a team, a religion or an outfit. It also depicts what can happen when people are exceedingly unhappy and desperate. Nazism took root in Germany in part because of the crushing repercussions of losing World War I as well as the worldwide depression. Adolf Hitler filled the role of charismatic leader and the rest is history.
One observation about this film is that it shows how impressionable young minds are. They are just beginning to develop a consciousness about the world around them. While adults can be swayed for sure, their experiences make them harder to mold. The lesson of The Wave is learned all too well and all too late for the students as well as for their teacher.
The Wave is available to rent.
Murphy can be reached at: [email protected]