Friday, September 5, 2008J.D. Tuccille
Have you ever heard of "The Wave?" That's the short-hand term for a sociological experiment conducted at Cubberly High School in Palo Alto in the mid 1960s. Inspired by a question about the German public's conduct during the rise of the Nazi regime, teacher Ron Jones started a school movement that inculcated "strength through discipline," "strength through community" and had students spying on one another and threatening dissidents. All this over the course of just five days.
Jones concluded the experiment by revealing to the assembled students that they had behaved just as the Germans had, willingly joining or at least tolerating a collectivist-authoritarian movement.
Not surprisingly, The Wave has intrigued Europeans, spawning books, plays and films. A new movie version, Die Welle, from German director Dennis Gansel was released earlier this year. It's a fictionalized and sensationalized version of the story, set in contemporary Germany, but it repeats the lesson of the actual event itself: individuals are all too eager to participate in the brutalization of their fellows.
The Wave and the media it spawned are sometimes taken as a specific cautionary tale about fascism, but Gansel tells of a broader warning in an interview with Britain's Daily Telegraph:
The director reveals that he had to sharpen his movie's ending after observing young audiences giving the salute at test screenings. "They thought it was cool and iconic. The Wave is about fun and creating a community and I believe that's still appealing. There is a strong urge today for a big idea that is bigger than yourself. Not necessarily fascism; it could be, say, the Green movement."
Paradoxically, the German-language The Wave has yet to find a distributor in the US, a country never short of big ideas, especially in an election year. "People want to throw themselves behind a cause," Gansel insists. "And we hope to show how that can turn bad, much faster than we imagine."
In a year that has seen more than its fair share of cults of personality around political candidates, talk about "change" for its own sake, and people trekking from city to city, sleeping on floors and standing in line for hours just to hear politicians speak, America could probably use wide distribution of a movie like Die Welle.
If you find yourself bumming rides to political conventions, standing in the heat and the rain and carrying signs through the streets, all for the sake of somebody who wants to wield coercive power over you, your family and friends, you need to stop and think about what you're doing. It's not too big a step from there to a classroom in Palo Alto.
*************************************Trailer Die Welle