Saturday, August 30, 2008

"The Wave"

Rainer Wenger addresses The Wave members in "The Wave" soon to be released in the US...

From The Sunday Times
August 31, 2008

The Wave shows how to turn children into Nazis:
A hit German film that shows how to turn children into Nazis. And it's based on a real-life Californian experiment that got scarily out of hand

In a German school, a class of teenagers sits bored. Their history teacher, Herr Wenger, seems equally unenthusiastic. For Project Week, he announces, they’ll be studying Nazism, a prospect that elicits the usual groans: haven’t we beaten ourselves up enough? Wenger whacks on the projector and sobers them with footage of Nuremberg and Auschwitz. Lights on and a hand goes up. It’s the perennial: how could a whole nation have let this happen?

This is a scene from Dennis Gansel’s latest film, and, given his previous one, the acclaimed Before the Fall, about the Nazification of German youth, it’s clear the director has a bone to pick. “I have a grandfather who was really supportive of Hitler,” he confides. “He said, ‘When I was your age, I was leading a division in Russia.’ And I have very left-wing parents. So, as part of the third generation after the second world war, it is something I really want to explore.”

In Die Welle (The Wave), the setting is present-day. Wenger (Jürgen Vogel) invites his students to participate in an experiment. Put their faith in him and he will deliver a unique insight into the mind-set of a citizen in a totalitarian state. What begins as a playful study in psychological manipulation — a few drills in collective behaviour, time trials in entering the room — soon runs away with itself. By midweek, Wenger is recoiling in horror. His acned darlings have been transformed into an ersatz Hitler Youth — the title’s self-styled “Wave” — complete with uniform, badge, salute and an eagerness to jackboot all nonbelievers. “It isn’t about politics at all,” Gansel says. “It’s more about group dynamics and psychology.”

If the film sounds far-fetched, it isn’t. Bar some dramatic licence, it is modelled on a very real experiment that took place in a schoolroom in Palo Alto, California, over one week in April 1967. Known as “The Third Wave”, it achieved similarly sensational results, a textbook case for psychologists. Back then, at Cubberley High, in the heart of affluent Silicon Valley, the orchestrator was a history teacher named Ron Jones. Against the backdrop of 1960s radicalism, he thought he’d spice up a routine social-studies lesson for his 10th-graders. “It was very spontaneous and very improvisational,” Jones remembers. “My own curiosity got the best of me and I started playing with it. The first day was structured, but the other four were not, although events were tumbling down on top of us.”

Mark Hancock was one of Jones’s then 15-year-old guinea pigs. “Ron was the most popular teacher in the school. Kids wanted to be in his class,” he says. “The thing to remember is, he was very young, right out of Stanford University, so we really identified with him. This was not his first experiment either, which is why we were so accepting of it.” Indeed, the proverbial charismatic leader found his charges eminently suggestible. As in the film, it began with the tenet “Discipline” — extolling the benefits of correct posture, the merits of direct and courteous speech (the kind of advice you wish would be directed towards your average British adolescent). “Fascism takes steps, it doesn’t pop out of nowhere,” says Jones. “It comes from a series of progressions.”

It was meant to have been a one-day exercise, but when Jones entered on the second morning to find his silent and attentive class eager for more dictation, he decided to run with it. He gave his group a name, The Third Wave (after surfer lore that the last of a trio of breakers is the biggest), a hand signal, membership cards. Soon, he was espousing the Orwellian (and chantable) doctrines of “strength through community” and “strength through action”. With even the class deadbeats happily involved, he instructed his Third Wavers to proselytise. To a more sinister end, he established his own Gestapo to rat out any sceptics. “We basically had a mini police state going,” says Hancock. “You couldn’t trust your best friend. You were scared to death because if you did something, you’d get caught, and if you got caught, you got a bad grade. You were ruled by fear.”

The 30-odd original Wavers soon swelled to an order of 200, a Darwinian force within the school. “It was like an explosion, constantly getting out of control. It was taking on a lot of its own dimensions,” says Jones.

There were Good Germans, to be sure. “The traditional story is that every single kid was enthusiastic; the reality was more complicated,” recalls Hancock. The intimidatory atmosphere, however, kept them silent. “When students were pronounced guilty in front of the class, it was, ‘Gee, that’s good, let’s give ’em some more,’ ” says Jones. “Wow, it sent a chill up my back, this kind of group desire to hurt someone.” Teachers and parents grew concerned. With a recent history of violence at the school, the propensity for something more cataclysmic seemed real. “One of the students in the class was a bomb-maker,” says Jones. “He had blown off his hand the previous summer.” Springtime was over for the reluctant Führer.

Unexpectedly, Jones cranked it up a notch. The Third Wave was no isolated group, he informed his enraptured followers, but part of a co-ordinated national youth movement, with cells all across America. A rally in the assembly hall was called for Friday afternoon, at which a leader would reveal himself on live television, declaring The Third Wave the national third party. “I remember somebody saying, ‘We’re going to get the pigs out of Washington,’ ” says Philip Neel, another of Jones’s pupils.

It was there Jones dropped his bombshell. At the appointed hour, to a fevered auditorium, the TVs crackled blankly. Behind, on a screen, Jones projected the same archive images of Nazi atrocities with which he had begun the week. “He looked shaken up. He just said that what he had witnessed had overwhelmed him,” says Neel. “He said, ‘Let me show you your future. You guys were led by your own desires and were willing to give up your freedoms.’ ” There were tears and tantrums — some upset, some relieved, others confused. “I just felt ohmigod, the fact that he pulled this off, I did not see it coming. Maybe that’s my own naivety, but what a great experiment, one of the best learning experiences I ever had.”

The Third Wave was duly forgotten. “Very similar to what happened in Germany, ‘I didn’t take part, it didn’t happen,’ ” says Jones. It resurfaced in 1972 when a former pupil flashed him their quasi-Nazi gesture (“I was buying underwear,” he laughs), prompting Jones to write about the experiment. It assumed a new lease of life, attracting inquiries from ne’er-do-wells with an interest in exerting group control. “Jim Jones called me from his People’s Temple,” he says. In 1981 came a TV movie and a novelisation by Todd Strasser (aka Morton Rhue). The book became an international bestseller and a set text in German schools, which Gansel read. “The first question was: would this be possible in my country with our dark burden?” he says. “And the second: what would have been my part?”

The notable thing about both the original project and the German filmed version is that they take place in white, middle-class suburbs, with no racial tensions evident — illustrating Gansel’s central point, the embracing of Nazism happened even in the cushy reaches of “Middle Germany”. But there are also differences. It is much more plausible to suggest that kids in 1967, before the internet, could be duped into believing they were part of a national movement. Also, and crucially, whereas in Gansel’s film the pupils embrace the experiment as part of their routine course work — with no virtual Weimar Republic to crystallise their actions — Jones’s pupils had a very real incentive to play ball. “You had to get good grades to get into college,” says Neel. “And to stay in college was to stay out of the draft. There was definitely the spectre of Vietnam.” Resistance, as you might put it, was futile.

An interesting upshot of The Wave, already a hit in Germany, is that Jones has been approached by TV companies (including a British one) wanting to replicate versions of his classroom experiment in a reality-show context. Our love of lab-rat telly, Jones suggests, merely demonstrates our capacity for the kind of malevolent behaviour he was trying to spotlight 40 years ago. “What are we cheering? Are we any better than the Nazis?” he asks. Look deep into your soul, viewer. We are all responsible.

The Wave is released on September 19

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