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Film Review by Alan Kenny, September 2008
Director: Dennis Gansel; Release date: 19 September
High school teachers often make a lasting impression. No student of this film's central character - Rainer Wenger - could forget him in a hurry. Based on a true story from a Californian high school in 1967, the teacher attempts to explain the meaning of "autocracy" to his class during project week by teaching in an authoritarian manner.
Rainer is a popular lefty teacher who, sporting a different punk band T-shirt for every day of the week, strives to break with the stuffy teaching methods of some of his colleagues.
Making the class march on the spot, he implores them to make the ceiling below collapse on the "anarchy" class being taught by his teaching nemesis. These methods capture the imagination of the class, and they soon adopt a uniform, of white shirt and jeans, and develop a salute (a gesture that wouldn't be out of place in an ABBA routine!), although no clear political aim is ever alluded to.
The film observes the tensions created in the school as "the Wave" takes hold. "Wave" graffiti appears all over town - including a particularly spectacular piece on the Town Hall. A highly charged atmosphere develops in the school - culminating in a fight at an inter-school water polo match.
You are drawn initially into the different backgrounds of the students, and the film hints tantalisingly at tensions between the richer and poorer students in class. However, all of the characters, including the somewhat egotistical Wenger, remain painfully underdeveloped.
The director's attempt at a quirky, fast-paced film misses the mark and you feel like you are watching a feature-length episode of the Channel 4 series Teachers. Nothing wrong with this necessarily - but it seems to detract from the serious issues at the film's heart.
As the film draws to its startling conclusion, Wenger states that "the Wave" had gone out of control, and, wrongly, that "this was fascism". There is even a misplaced echo of the recent German film about resistance to the Nazis, Sophie Scholl, when the character Karo distributes leaflets to call for "the Wave" to be stopped.
Ultimately, the film can't seem to decide whether it has something to say about fascism in particular or whether it's simply about student-teacher relationships and "collective psychology" in a school.
By modernising and locating this story in Germany the film pitches into contemporary German debates about fascism while all the time seeming reticent to fully explore them.
The result is a somewhat confused film, which you feel is never quite as gritty as it could be. Some of this is no doubt down to the nature of the original episode in 1967 - but you can't help feeling that the makers of this film further muddy the waters.
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