When Rainer Wegner, a popular high school teacher, finds himself relegated to
teaching autocracy as part of the schools project week, hes less than enthusiastic. So are his students, who greet the prospect of studying fascism yet again with apathetic grumbling: The Nazis sucked. We get it. Struck by the teenagers complacency and unwitting arrogance, Rainer devises an unorthodox experiment. But his hastily conceived lesson in social orders and the power of unity soon grows a life of its own.
In probing the underpinnings of fascism, The Wave is far from a social-studies lesson. As with his previous film, Before the Fall, director Dennis Gansel fashions an energetic, gripping drama that cuts through superficial ideological interrogatives and goes straight for the veins–the human psychologies and individual behaviors that contribute to collective movements. In unpeeling the emotional layers and contradictions of his characters (the need to belong, to be empowered, to escape social distinctions), Gansel offers a humanistic perspective on the terrifying irony that these students may welcome the very things they denounce.
And lest we too easily dismiss this cautionary tale, its noteworthy that the true story that prompted Todd Strassers novel The Wave (from which the film was adapted) did not take place in Germany, but at a high school in Palo Alto.