The Wave is top-heavy and light-footed, racing its winning idea—that fascism can still be attractive to some, even in modern Germany—past itself. What prevents the movie from gaining any traction is that it doesn’t bother to pace itself with details and character growth and is instead too eager to rush to its faux-grand thesis, which is obvious from the start, without backing it up with any citations.
Writer-director Dennis Gansel wants to startle us with his depiction of how Rainer Wenger (Jürgen Vogel), an edgy, young teacher who dons a Ramones T-shirt, is able to convert his humdrum students into fervent fascists in modern-day Germany, but because the story lacks conviction and explanation it ends up feeling like a transparent and weak attempt at fleshing out an idea. The story is too ready to jump ahead; the group the class forms, the Wave, moves quickly in a short amount of time (coming up with their name, buying uniforms, making logos, and then vandalizing buildings), but very little time is spent on telling us why, besides the obvious (the teacher is hip, one student lacks a strong family), these students are so readily drawn to something that has historically been so destructive. If the pace and editing feel strangely American, it should be noted that the story is based on a real incident that happened in California—and developed from a novel by Todd Strasser, an on-set consultant on the film. That that movie treats the growth of fascism as surprising doesn’t seem particularly German either.
While the suggestion of another dictatorship forming so easily in Germany is unsettling, the fact is that there are currently dictatorships in operation in other countries, and they occur for rational purposes. These reasons should be sufficient material to carve characters out of, to give us more insight into how individuals willingly agree to be part of dictatorships, but The Wave would rather not examine the psychology too closely, preferring instead a Cliffs Notes approach to How to Develop Character Psychology, or maybe just the Ramones’ brain-fried simplicity. This choice may stem from an uneasiness about going too deep into the national psyche, but it’s more likely Gansel’s own shallowness.
For as serious as the movie takes itself, for as real as it wants its fascism to seem and the possibility of it being so eminent, there’s a semblance to campy American high school movies about teen rebellion. At the beginning of The Wave, Wenger is denied permission to teach his desired class on anarchy. Throughout the rest of the movie there’s a peculiar leitmotif of anarchists vs. autocrats that personalizes the events as if they were occurring only in relation to Wenger, even when he’s not in the scene, creating the only subtlety in the movie, a dream-like quality. If Wenger had gotten permission to teach the anarchy class it might have looked something like Mark Lester’s Class of 1984, a classic B movie about a high school full of kids who can’t be controlled and bully their teachers.