Film Analysis: The Wave

General Overview

“The Wave” is a breathtaking drama directed by Denis Gansel. The idea of this movie is based on the real social experiment “The Third Wave” held in Palo Alto, California. The aim of the experiment was to show everyone that fascism is an attractive idea even in today’s democratic society. This research was conducted by the history teacher Ron Jones with sophomore high school students attending his course “Contemporary World”. Ron Jones was a consultant during the filming of”The Wave”.

The story takes place in contemporary Germany. One of the main characters is Rainer Wenger. He is a young and charismatic high school teacher with unusual teaching methods. 

“The Wave” starts in the classroom during the project week. As an anarchist by his political persuasions, Rainer Wenger decided to run an anarchy class at the beginning, but he did not manage to do this, as his students were not enthusiastic about the idea. Wenger picked up another topic for his lessons. He decided to investigate the problem of autocracy with his students.

At the beginning of the autocracy class, the students were not interested in researching this problem, as they did not believe in relevance of the class’s subject. Rainer asked them about the possibility of dictatorship in modern Germany. The students overwhelmingly replied that it was impossible to initiate dictatorship like Adolph Hitler did. The teacher decided to show his students that everything is possible in modern unstable society.

Rainer Wenger began the implementation of his class’s theme by posing as the organizational leader. Among his policy steps, there were the introduction of ceremonious address to himself (i.e. as ‘Herr Wenger’, as opposed to merely ‘Rainer’), and  the change in students’ seating pattern: the low-graders were now in sitting behind the high-performing students, as Wenger claimed that such arrangement would motivate the former group to learn from the latter. In addition, the students now had to stand up when giving answers before the class and to reply in short and courteous manner to the teacher. Rainer Wenger was given a week for his experiment, and each day of this week was full of different events.

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Mr. Wenger wanted to accelerate the process. He tried to motivate his students for achieving better results in researching the problem of dictatorship. In doing so, Rainer transformed his class into a mini-dictatorship model. Mr. Wenger used special methods in his autocracy class. He asked his students to wear white shirts, and the students liked this idea. It helped to reduce social differences between members of the group. They had their special conventional signs, logo and uniform. Moreover, they invented their special greeting that was similar to the Nazi salute.

The Wave Project had a great impact on every student. They started to follow their leader’s motto ‘unity is power’ in every aspect of their life. A lot of newcomers joined their organization in a very short amount of time.  Mr. Wenger managed to unite a group of absolutely diverse personalities.  It was one of the key points of his autocracy class, and he succeeded in the implementation of this plan.

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There were some students that were influenced by Mr. Wenger and his experiment more than others. Tim is depicted in the film as an example of this sub-group, as this young boy becomes attached to the group and its founder. Tim was a lonely teenager, having no friends at all. For all of his life, he was looking for a place under the sun. After joining The Wave, Tim became an accepted member of this social group. He was very glad to meet new friends like Bomber or Marko. Soon, Tim began carrying a gun for protection.  He sincerely wanted to be useful for his new friends. Tim visited Mr. Wenger at his house. He offered him to be his bodyguard. Mr. Wenger was very surprised, but he rejected this offer.

The Wave had a couple of opponents, Karo and Mona. At the beginning, these girls were the members of Mr. Wenger’s organization. Soon enough, The Wave transformed into something more serious. The school research has gone beyond the classroom. The students were recruiting new participants for The Wave. A lot of members were spraying their logo around the town. Furthermore, they had parties only for Wave supporters. Karo and Mona considered it to be unacceptable. They left this project group because of fascist ideas that Mr. Wenger gradually came to profess. They tried to resist the activities of The Wave. These girls tried to persuade their teacher Mr. Wenger and other students to finish the activity of the organization, as even Karo’s boyfriend Marko was now supporting them. In the beginning, he had nothing against The Wave and Mr. Wenger. Nevertheless, he changed his opinion very soon. Marko had a quarrel with her girlfriend, and both of them were shouting. He could not resist his rage and hit her. At this moment, he realized that something was wrong with The Wave.

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Mr. Wenger was also a water polo manager. Sinan and Marko were members of the team. Before creating The Wave, it was not popular at all, and few students visited water polo games. With The Wave, everything changed very quickly. Water polo now played a very important role in uniting students, as the viewer can see in their last game. A lot of The Wave members came to support Mr. Wenger and his team. However, the game was not finished, as The Wave supporters started a fight with the rival’s team.

Wenger’s wife Anke was very upset with this project. She said that her husband loved being idolized by his students. She asked her husband to finish the experiment as soon as possible. Anke noticed that The Wave made Rainer a bad person. Mr. Wenger became very angry, as her words enraged him. Rainer accused her of being jealous. He said that she hated his unique experiment and unusual teaching methods. Rainer said that his style of teaching was more popular than hers.  He was shouting and yelling, and nothing could stop him. His wife left home shocked.

Reflecting on this sad events later, Mr. Wenger saw the error of his ways and decided to stop the activity of The Wave. To this end, he organized the group’s meeting behind locked doors. In the course of the meeting, Rainer promised his students to change everything in Germany. One of his students protested and was called a traitor. Mr. Wenger asked other students to bring this boy to the stage for punishment. After the punishment, Rainer showed his students an extreme power of their organization. He offered them to go home and think about the events of the last week. However, Tim refused to accept that the activity of the organization should be ceased. In the ensuing quarrel, he wounded his friend with a gunshot, and then committed suicide, as his life lost its meaning. What began as an experiment ends as a tragedy.

“The Wave” viewed through the lens of Organizational Behavior theories

In his experiment, Mr. Wenger proved that the phenomenon of extreme obedience is tangible even nowadays, and this extraordinary phenomenon is a mystery even today. The ideas of fascism are attractive even in modern democratic society, as currently shown by Greece’s Golden Dawn. Thus one should appreciate the freedom of human will that can be smashed by such despicable ideas.  

From the Organizational Behavior (OB) perspective, “The Wave” may be read as an example of tremendous influence that the possession of formal authority may bestow upon the power figure, such as the leader. The 20th century Milgram’s experiments, which tested the subjects’ tendency to obey the external authority, have already shown that the subjects that may be reluctant to act in certain ways under normal conditions, are easily manipulated and compelled to commit the acts that breach the limits of acceptable, if directed to this end by the authority figure, such as the teacher (French et al, 2011, pp.490-493). The final scene in the film, with Rainer ordering The Wave members to punish their dissenting peer may be a good example of such OB situation.

Another OB aspect that should be addressed with regard to “The Wave” is the tendency of the organization’s subordinates to identify themselves with the organization’s goals and activities, gradually sinking into conformity. Together with the authoritarian organizations’ tendency toward groupthink and forced uniformity, this may lead to the loss of individual willpower and aspirations (Wray-Bliss, 2007, pp. 520-521. Such occurrences may take place if the individual is especially susceptible to group identity’s impact, as in Tim’s case.

In total, ‘The Wave” demonstrates the power of groupthink and obedience, cautioning the audience from uncritically following any formal authorities. Furthermore, this film shows that even good-intentioned or naïve individuals may become true monsters if they fall prey to the lure of power or to the crowd thinking.

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