This is a film which surely has an emotional impact and recalls – moving the setting to nowadays Germany – the experiment conducted in the ’60 in a high school of Palo Alto (California, USA). This film combines narrative and symbolic elements and represents, in my opinion, an extraordinary example of the strength of cinema’s language, providing the audience with a spark for an in-depth reflection on the power dynamic in different social and economic environment and, in general, on human relationships.

The Wave is an overwhelming film, at the beginning its content is mainly pedagogic but, over time, the tone becomes more strictly “political”, becoming more “tsunami”-like, with an increasing intensity which makes people face a choice between two opposite positions, without the possibility of choosing something in between. However, the film has a deep meaning also from a training point of view, because  it offers amazing food for thought about the necessity of raising questions as professionals involved in people’s healing processes and on the ethical position taken by anyone who would take a role where human contact is fundamental.

The main character is Reiner Wenger (interpreted by Jurger Vogel), a committed anarchist teacher, and the setting of the story is a school, the scenario in which the teachers’ frustrated personalities, their hostile relationships, their silent competitions’ pettiness and arrogance stand out, inside a daily life full of repetitive actions and relational automatisms. In this context, Wenger becomes an almost “mystical” figure; he’s the type of leader who creates frustration and builds «his program on the negative resonance – on the unpleasant emotions related with fight and escape that cross the mind when people feel threatened or furious». (D. Goleman – R. E. Boyatzis – A. McKee, Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence, 2002). And in those situations where there is the need to find role models, as it actually happens to more or less every character in the film (for “particular” family situations, for deep insecurity or for a lack of self-confidence).

A leader who, acting as an “activator” of the energy present inside the group, introduces in the class a “revolutionary” idea, with a very intense emotional content, around which the group of students finds its own shape and a strong sense of belonging. This idea, that little by little becomes a true “faith” that goes beyond the school’s walls and finds a concrete application in the reality and online, will end up representing a true threaten to the safety of the group and of the school itself.

Professor Wenger’s approach is undoubtedly creative and his teaching methods are enthralling; but, despite his effectiveness, Wenger shows from the beginning the “germs” of a dangerous and autocratic character that represents, for the students, an easy and strong source of attraction. In this sense, he embodies the role of “negative mentor”; that is, as Christopher Vogler could define it, an “Anti-mentor” that guides a lot of young “Anti-heroes” along the path of discrimination and social deviation. In fact, over time the film shows the gradual “falling in love” of the teacher with his own role and the danger of his “border-line” position that he takes on over time, making the group a sole entity which ends up identifying itself with the teacher’s lucid “delusion”, or better going – in continuity – beyond his expectations. When the energy of the group is released with all its inauspicious potentialities, Wenger can’t keep the situation under control; the “thought of the thought of the group” is not anymore the catalysing element that can help him with the aim of reminding the boundary between reality and experiment and between educational aspect and life itself. This failure, as a teacher, as a mentor, as a leader, but especially as a man, is shown with great effectiveness in the final scene, where Wenger appears as a “naked” man, defeated, that is a man who lost everything, he’s a victim of himself, of his “delusion” of grandeur and his “creature”, which he wasn’t been able to contain.

In conclusion, the film is excellent in describing the dynamics of the conflict escalation and of the formation of a “group thought”, where polarization rapidly replaces moderation and dialogue.

Stefano Cera


Buy the film

Buy the recommended book

“The Wave” A film by Dennis Gansel with Jürgen Vogel, Frederick Lau, Jennifer Ulrich and Max Riemelt - Original title "Die welle". Germany, 2008

"Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis, Annie McKee

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