Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Wave

Last night Eric and I decided to have an indoor date night, ordering take-out and watching a movie.  With full tummies after watching a silly movie, we skimmed through our Netflix streaming queue where I had included a German film called The Wave.  I had been curious about it because it reminded me of an American TV special I had seen years ago.  We decided to watch it, remaining transfixed for the next 90 minutes.

The premise of both films is the same.  They are based on a true story of an experiment led by a high school teacher in Palo Alto, California in 1969.  The subject was fascism and autocracy.  While learning the basics, the students were incredulous of how any group of people could allow themselves to become a part of something so monstrous and so damaging. 
What the students didn't know was that they were ripe for an experiment.  Think back to high school, where we were all trying to establish our own identities, and yet, what we wanted most was to belong to something.  Cliques were at their strongest as we were all growing together.  It is a double-edged sword, and the teachers used it to their full advantage.  In both the 2010 German and 1981 American versions, the teachers began the experiment slowly, talking about "strength through discipline," encouraging straight posture, and the simple rule of standing before speaking.  Next came the symbol, giving the students a chance to feel like they were part of something bigger, and then the salute.  As both films progress, the teachers see that the experiment is taking on a life of its own, sometimes with scary results.

Both films focus on specific students and how the Wave movement affects them, primarily a teenage couple where the girl is having doubts, and a misfit boy who is feeling a sense of belonging for the first time in his life.

Where the films diverge is in their endings.  In the German film, the teacher completely loses control of the experiment.  In the American version, the teacher gathers the students at a rally to hear their "national leader" for the first time.  Well, you can guess who that is.  I, personally, think the American version has a better ending.  It isn't as intense, but it is more satisfying as the experiment's conclusion. I have not yet read the book, but it is on my reading list, and when I do I'll know which film's ending is more factual.  But for its ending, shorter length, and kid-friendly approach, I would recommend the American version.  In fact, I think every student should see it.

One of the things I found most interesting in both films happens when the students are outside of class and talking amongst themselves.  They talk about the Wave's "cause" and what the movement is trying to accomplish, a true testament to the teachers' manipulation of the groups, because neither of them ever revealed an actual cause or goal.  The students were simply lost in their feelings of superiority.  They didn't completely understand what was happening to them, but they did know that they liked it.  So much so that they were willing to trade their freedom, individuality, and former belief systems.

In the end, it is a lesson for all of us at any age.  Clubs, religions, groups, social status, education levels, patriotism, political parties--all of these can have wonderful results for ourselves and others. But taken to extremes, where we begin to use these things as excuses to hurt, shun, exclude or ignore others is something we must be careful to avoid.  We can deny it all we want, but as humans, the potential power of the Wave exists in all of us.  It is our personal responsibility to keep it buried where it belongs.
(The pictures above are both links.  The photo of the German film takes you to its trailer.  The photo of the American film takes you to YouTube, where you and your family can see it in its entirety. It is a film worth watching and discussing together if you feel your children can handle the subject-matter.) 


garcias said...

I watched the movie the night I finished reading your blog. It was good and scary. It makes me wonder what would happen now if someone were to try the same experiment. So far I am too chicken to watch the german movie. But I am really wondering what happened in real life. Thanks for the recommendation.

Anonymous said...

You need to see "The Lesson Plan" film which was produced by two of the original students at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto. It goes through recollections of students who went through the actual events at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto in 1967. Unfortunately, it's a little difficult to find a showing right now, but I expect it will be more widely distributed eventually. See and