The 20th century was a time of rampant political change and unrestrained tyranny. One needs only to mention the word ‘fascism’ for such disturbing images to appear before our eyes: Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Benito Mussolini’s right-wing takeover in Italy and the Francoist dictatorship in Spain, to name a few.
The scars that this period of history has left behind call for speculation and interrogation from a supposedly ‘modern’ and ‘enlightened’ society. We are constantly made to wrestle with the same questions: is it possible that history will repeat itself? Will we see a new surge in right-wing populism, or has this already been established? Is it possible that our ‘enlightened’ society will make the same mistakes, opening itself up to the manipulation of a menacing dictator?
Die Welle – a socio-political film directed by Dennis Gansel – shamelessly tackles these uncomfortable questions head-on, in a relentless narrative that does not show any sign of downplaying the atrocities of Germany’s autocratic past.
This is not a film that reluctantly whispers the words ‘Adolf Hitler’ at the sidelines. This is not a film that shies away from questions about dictatorial power. What Gansel makes crystal clear, however, is that the past and the present are not mutually exclusive. History can – and will – repeat itself.
To Gansel, blindsided idealism and naivety, often seen among German adolescents itching to shake off the shackles of a Nazi past, is one of the greatest threats to political harmony. This sense of disillusionment is presented didactically through an eclectic group of students during the film’s opening. Some even appear all-too keen to mock their fascist past in a stream of light-hearted and wildly inappropriate jokes. Herr Rainer, for instance, becomes ‘Hail Rainer’.
They have all chosen the theme of ‘autocracy’ for project week but lack any depth of interest in the topic at hand. The project offers, yet again, another opportunity for young Germans to scrutinise a part of their country’s history that they claim to have nothing to do with. These students are far too ‘enlightened’ to let another dictatorship blossom from the roots of Germany’s past.
Yet, the free and easy Rainer Wenger, who would have much rather taught the ‘anarchy’ class, seems to think otherwise. Whilst such a possibility would and should seem anything but trivial to the average German, Rainer is not so convinced by his country’s apparent immunity to right-wing populism.
Only a radical experiment would be able to settle such a dispute – and that is exactly what he sets out to do.
Based upon the controversial experiment performed by Californian teacher Ron Jones in 1967, Die Welle (meaning The Wave in English) explores the misleading belief that fascism is a thing of the past.
But Rainer’s students, who act as the mouthpiece for this consensus, quickly contradict their own words and fall into a perfectly laid trap. As project week progresses, so does the students’ faith in the de facto dictatorship that they do not even realise they are following.
The group’s propagandist mantra of ‘unity in power’ shares an uncanny resemblance with Hitler’s slogan ‘Sieg Heil’ (Hail Victory). A sense of militarised uniformity is then added into the mix, with the students adopting white shirts – a subtle yet undeniable head-nod to Hitler’s ‘Brown Shirts’.
In quick succession, a website is launched, a logo is established, a salute is agreed upon and opposition is cemented. The speed at which the movement becomes radicalised is so fast that if you blink, you might just miss it.
Most of the students feel drawn to the group because of its sense of community and belonging, becoming suggestive of the reassurance that impoverished Germans sought from Hitler in the 1930s, following years of hyperinflation and the impacts of the 1929 Wall Street Crash.
This translates into exclusion, vandalism and extremism. Those who become aware of the brainwashing are barred from entering the school. Resistance flyers (perhaps another head-nod to the White Rose resistance group in the 1940s) are destroyed. Even the school’s headteacher turns a blind eye to the group’s radicalisation, praising Rainer for his ‘successful’ teaching style.
Every new addition plunges the group deeper and deeper into the fascist dictatorship that Rainer has plucked out of thin air. Gansel utilises this crucial point to present several frightening truths about the nature of dictatorships. Rainer’s initial experiment has been blown out of proportion, despite his good intentions, and the damage done by the dictatorship remains invisible until it is too late.
Upon disbanding the group, the students are outraged, lost and confused. In the matter of a week, they have become so invested in ‘the cause’ that they struggle to comprehend what life will look like in its absence. We are now brought back to the question posed at the beginning of the week: could there ever be another dictatorship in Germany?
The answer is not needed. The ease at which the students have given into Rainer’s experiment says it all. This seemingly ‘enlightened’ society is not immune to the past. History has repeated itself.
Gansel’s reflection on right-wing populism and the power of indoctrination shares many parallels with recent events in the United Kingdom. Far-right movements have responded aggressively to the Black Lives Matter protests, showing that the voice of fascism is anything but dead.
Saturday saw a wave of racist protestors flood into Central London, chanting the name of right-wing figurehead Tommy Robinson and protecting the statues which, to them, represent British greatness and white superiority. They marched in unison through the city’s streets, calling for a different world with different values… just as Adolf Hitler had done.
Elsewhere in the world, the political climate is far from peaceful. Germany’s right-wing party ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ (Alternative for Germany) has crudely manifested itself into mainstream politics and now proudly claims itself as the largest opposition party in the Bundestag.
Viktor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister, has been granted emergency powers during the global health crisis, making him the world’s newest dictator.
So, the narrative of the past does not work anymore. Gansel’s exploration of an extreme political experiment, paired with a surge of far-right support across Europe and beyond, refutes our misguided belief that we are living in an ‘enlightened’ society.
The truth is that far-right extremism has never gone away. It has always been there underneath the surface, waiting to be brought back to life.
However, Die Welle was not intended to be a reflection of current events in 2020. The film was released in 2008 – 12 years ago – and reflects upon events that happened in the 1930s and 40s – 80 years ago.
Understanding this cycle of fascism perhaps sheds light on the significance of the film’s title. Right-wing populism has reoccurred consistently in our national histories, reaching its peaks and troughs just as a wave would do. Will we allow ourselves to be carried away by the wave’s current, or will we finally learn to free ourselves from the clutches of fascism?
Die Welle demands that we re-evaluate our apparent ‘enlightenment’ and prevent history from repeating itself. Fascism was never confined to the dictatorships of the 20th century. It is no longer impossible for teenagers to imagine a modern world like that of the 1940s. All they need to do is step outside.
Words by Katie McCarthy