a review of Die Welle
2008, Dennis Gansel
Germany After the Third Reich
One of the most pervasive aspects of contemporary German culture is how to address the legacy of the Third Reich, or indeed, whether to address it at all. Many Germans express opinions like, ‘Do we constantly have to be reminded of those years? It cannot happen again. We have learned the hard way that fascism is wrong.’ Perhaps this is the case. Penitent and redemptive themes course through post-war Germany. Any display of national pride outside of a soccer match is frowned upon. Former concentration camps are now tourist destinations. Even the rise of militant left-wing groups such as the Rote Armee Faktion (Baader-Meinhof Gruppe) are to some degree reactions to Germany’s Nazi legacy.
The German state has made many concessions in the post-war era. Its immigration laws for Eastern European Jews are laxer than those of the state of Israel. The payment of funds as outlined in the Treaty of Versailles, which had been suspended by Hitler, were reinstated (and have recently concluded). Strict censorship of racist speech and Nazi iconography is enforced.
Individuals, especially intellectuals and artists, have responded in their own varied ways. Often these responses are deeper and more perceptive than the state is able to formulate without undercutting its own legitimacy. Die Welle is one such response. It is significant that this film is set in contemporary Germany. For at least the past decade German cinema has been preoccupied with retrospective historical films. This is a curious phenomenon, especially when contrasted with the perennial self-congratulatory WWII films out of Hollywood. The U.S. cinema is obviously engaged in upholding the mythos of military “liberation” to justify the country’s dominant position in world affairs. The films coming out of Germany are more nuanced and introspective; slow to condemn or to praise.
The Pedagogy of Reverse-Psychology
The film raises numerous questions about education. It is set at a Gymnasium (roughly equivalent to prep schools in the US, though public and less formal). The main character, Rainer, is a cool teacher, the sort who allows behavior in class that other teachers would not tolerate and whom the students call by first name. More importantly, he is one of those rare teachers who takes his profession seriously. He is motivated is to reach his students by giving them a personalized learning experience rather than the rote pedagogical experience so common in the schooling system.
At about 40 years old, Rainer is an old-school punk. His allegiance is to working-class struggle (“1 Mai, immer dabei!” – “Long live May 1!”) and “anarchy,” in some sense. He is initially greatly disappointed at the beginning of the term to be assigned to teach the Autocracy seminar, instead of the Anarchy seminar. But he decides to make the most of it, and to teach the pitfalls of autocracy, of fascism, by example. In only a matter of days the Autocracy class is transformed into a fascist cadre, complete with its own uniform, logo, salute and name: Die Welle (The Wave). Several students are unwilling to go along with this charade. To these Rainer gives the ultimatum: conform or switch classes. The Wave quickly escapes the bounds of the classroom in numerous ways. The unintended consequences of Rainer’s pedagogical approach impress upon the audience the dangers of authority, even when wielded by the most well-meaning and anti-authoritarian individuals.
Though I tend to agree with the polemical thrust of the film, I found the responses of characters to the Wave to be unnuanced. First, the dissidents’ perspectives were not explored as thoroughly as they might have been. One prominent character has a gut-level aversion, but no character expresses theoretical opposition besides a facile individualism. Second, the reactions of students within the Wave are almost entirely uncritical. Perhaps this is accurate, in that obedience to authority opposes critical thought. However, it seems very unlikely that not a single student involved in the Wave – a class on autocracy, after all – would not clearly perceive the real lessons intended by Rainer. At one point in the story a student voiced a reformist position, but this was not explored in depth, either. Despite these minor flaws, the film is excellent overall. The pace of the plot development draws the audience in. The cast play their various parts believably and nearly flawlessly.
Near the end of the film Rainer decides it is finally time to pull the plug on the Wave. Only about four characters have come to see the danger that lies in the fascist organization. But the revelation of his pedagogical plot is cut short. Though the Führer, he has unleashed a social force that he cannot control. The Wave must break upon the shore, but before it does it drowns those caught up in it.
Anarchy in Die Welle
Anarchism figures rather prominently in the film’s plot. As mentioned above Rainer embraces an anarcho-punk identity. He does not hesitate to make the Anarchy class, and anarchists generally, into the enemies of the Wave. It is not long before Wave students find themselves in street confrontations with punks. When I visited Germany a decade ago I was told that gangs of punks and neo-Nazis were known to battle. This was before I was aware of anarchism and antifa, and I would be interested to know whether anarchism and punk are more closely knit in Germany than in the U.S. Whether or not such clashes are as frequent as I was led to believe, they are clearly prominent in the German pop-cultural collective consciousness. Punk is not dead… in Germany, at least. Despite being the archenemies of Nazis, anarcho-punks do not escape criticism in die Welle. As noted by Rainer, punks have their own “uniform” of black leather jackets. The punks have their own in-group mentality and manner of acting. And two punks in the film act in a manner quite incompatible with anarchist ideals by attacking the weak.
Though anarchists in the Anglophone countries are more likely to be crust punks or hipsters than old-school-style punks, in my experience the criticism of the anarchists in the film are applicable to our real life anarchist scenes or milieus. Depending on the specific scene, conformity may still be enforced, whether of attire, diet or whatever. However, choosing, whether consciously or not, to create an in-group style is probably as old as the human race and not inherently a symptom of authority. Also, as has been made painfully clear time and again, anarchists are capable of reproducing patriarchy, stereotyping and other authoritarian forms. This doesn’t invalidate anarchism, but should rather induce us to try harder to create ways of being outside of the forms of oppression we have identified.
The willingness of the film to engage with anarchism is refreshing. Clearly the writers take anarchism more seriously than the vast majority of those involved in mass media. It is tempting to interpret the obvious contrast of anarchism and autocracy as support of the former. However, I have no compelling reason to be at all certain of such a conclusion. Without knowing the intentions and biases of the film-makers, speculation about why anarchism is afforded a prominent place in the plot of die Welle is useless.
Sex and Other Touchy Topics
Gender and sex play rather significant, if subtle, roles in Die Welle. The Wave’s dissidents are two female students. Rainer’s wife , also employed at the school, voices concerns (which he consistently ignores) about his new pedagogical method. The school principal is a woman. An act of violence by a male against a female is a pivotal plot point. One of the male students has an evidently alcoholic, promiscuous single mother. Another male student with a bad home life is strongly drawn to the despotic male teacher. The implication seems to be that authority and patiarchy are inseparable, or at least mutually-reinforcing.
Pop culture’s unending fascination with youth is undoubtedly part of the appeal of Die Welle; the film’s cast of attractive young women and men is a typical example of that fascination. High school drama plays a fortunately minor role in the plot (I wonder if that epitome of teen drama Degrassi has made it to Germany…). The youth demographic seems to be the target audience given the film’s subject matter and sex appeal. At first I was tempted to write this off as merely a gimmick to put butts in cinema seats. And perhaps it is, but not because the film is exclusively for teenagers. The prominent place of youth in the pop-cultural collective consciousness appears to have been intentionally employed here to make the events of the film appealing and comprehensible to a wide audience. Die Welle is nothing if not accessible.