Rainer Wenger (Jürgen Vogel) is a teacher of P.E. at this German high school, but he also tutors in political science and fancies himself as something of a rebel within the system with his punk T-shirts and cool attitude, not to mention the admiring reaction he receives from the students. But today there's a spanner thrown in the works when his assignment to teach anarchism in class is changed so he now takes the autocracy lectures instead. He tries to reason with the headmistress but she won't alter her mind, and neither will the other teacher who doesn't like him much anyway...
So what to do but make the best of it, and throw himself into the study of dictatorships, spurred on by an increasingly eager class? You can see where this is going early on, but that didn't make it any the less vital in its dramatics which alternated between Rainer's home life with his pregnant wife Anke (Christiane Paul) who is sceptical about his methods at first, then eventually hostile, and the teens who take the message of teaming up to become a stronger society to heart. But they don't realise that what they are doing is emulating the fascists who took over Germany back in the 1930s and led it to utter disaster.
If this sounds heavy handed, then it was, but it remained compelling due to director Dennis Gansel keeping things within the bounds of probability - well, up to a point. In the meantime, the autocracy class turn to enthusiastically embracing their studies if it means essentially they become a gang of sorts, with a charismatic leader in Herr Wenger as they now call him (before he was the trendy teacher who insisted on the pupils using his first name), dress in a uniform of white shirts and denims, and even, to rub in the allegory further, invent their own symbol and salute, mirroring their new designation as "The Wave", a title chosen by vote. Soon they are the talk of the school, but not necessarily in a good sense.
One pupil, Karo (Jennifer Ulrich) refuses to wear the white shirt and finds herself ostracised, feeling she cannot stay on the course any longer. With a small band of sympathisers, she orchestrates a campaign against The Wave, distributing flyers preaching opposition to them, but is overhwelmed by the tide of their sinister conformity. Crucially, no matter how far the students go in their pursuit of this new order, Gansel never allows us to lose sight of their humanity, as we can well understand why they have progressed as far as they have from a disorganised collection of disparate youths to a powerful force for their own self-promotion. As they spread their symbols and influence around the town, Rainer gradually wakes up to what he has spawned.
If this is coming across as farfetched, remember it was based on a true story, not the actual rise of the Nazis but an experiment in California of the late sixties, where a schoolteacher seeking to teach his class about fascism allowed the lessons to get out of hand. This film was obviously more potent for setting that story in Germany, and if there was a right on moral to be related here it might well have reached the correct audience more than a dry textbook could ever have done. Is the capacity for this kind of conformism inherent in human nature, the film ponders, can we all begin to fall into thoughtless persecution and lining up with unsavoury ideologies simply because they offer the veneer of security against a perceived "other" when we're really being controlled by the power hungry and venal? It's a good question, but Gansel falters at the finish line with an overly mleodramatic conclusion when he could have ended it perfectly appropriately a couple of minutes before. Nevertheless, a very interesting effort. Music by Heiko Maile.