The Lesson Plan, the so-called “Third Wave” classroom exercise was actually the brainchild of American leftist Ron Jones, who converted his Palo Alto high school into a fascist mini-state in 1967. The incident subsequently inspired Morton Rhue’s young adult novel and Dennis Gansel’s adaptation, the Sundance standout The Wave (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the ReRun Gastropub on a double bill with his hipster vampire noir We Are the Night.
Mr. Wenger is the popular teacher. He lets kids call him Rainer and reminisces about his time on the barricades. He is all geared up to teach a special topics class on anarchism, but a senior faculty member nips that in the bud. Instead, Wenger is stuck with the autocracy course. Yet, low and behold, the topic inspires him. Suddenly, it’s “Mr. Wenger” again, but only during autocracy class. Surprisingly, the students also take to the new discipline he dishes out, embracing the rather stylish white button-down shirt and blue jeans as their uniform. As befits a collective, they also adopt an ominous sounding name: The Wave. Yes, they even have their own special salute.
Naturally, students who are not part of The Wave, feel keenly excluded. Those not enrolled in Wenger’s class are still able to join, provided they blindly submit to the rules of the budding cult. A few, like Karo, the formerly popular ex-girlfriend of Marco, the star water-polo player, recognize the insidious nature of the Wave. Yet, as long as they are not too outrageous in their tactics, the administration condones Wenger’s ill-conceived project.
Indeed, Gansel deftly maintains the appropriate foreboding of violence, without letting things escalate too precipitously as to alarm the adults (such as they are). While it is a bit of a slow build as a result, Wave is frighteningly convincing when it gets where it is going.
Rather than a megalomaniac, Jürgen Vogel plays Wenger as a truly tragic leftwing everyman figure, undone by vanity stemming from his popularity with his students. His arc of character development is quite compellingly turned, but pretty scary to witness. Though it predates Gansel’s Night by a few years, both his films share several common cast members, including the very Aryan looking Max Riemelt as Marco, who effectively conveys his successive conversions to and from Wavism. Unfortunately, most of his fellow students are nearly indistinguishable, even before they start wholesale conforming.