Die Welle has received good coverage in the UK media for what is a ‘specialised release’ in the UK (i.e. only a few prints on release). However, it was slagged off by both Bradshaw in the Guardian and the academic turned critic Sarah Churchwell on BBC2 Newsnight Review. For me, they both make the mistake of judging the film as an art object and not what it is – a solid, mainstream teen movie (or youth picture as I would prefer).
The first thing to be clear about is that this is that very rare beast in the UK – a mainstream German picture, from one of the main German film companies. Usually, we don’t get to see the big German comedies and action films, presumably on the grounds that it is too expensive to dub them for the multiplex and that the arthouse audience won’t like them if subtitled (as per Bradshaw). This is unfortunate as it deprives us of German popular culture as study texts for film and media studies.
The plot of the film is derived from a German best-selling novel, in turn based on events in a California high school in the 1960s when a teacher decided to teach about fascism by putting his students through a programme of inculcating discipline, uniformity and commitment to the group. In the film, the self-selecting group of students who opt for a Project Week topic on ‘autocracy’ find themselves with a popular and laid-back teacher, horrified that he’s been given the topic to teach and that his preferred option ‘anarchy’ (he has been a real anarchist) has been given to the most conservative teacher in the school. Faced with a class expecting something new, “Not the Third Reich again, man!”, he quickly decides he needs a new idea.
The narrative, as befits the youth picture genre, is compressed into a week, Monday to Saturday. Things happen very fast in the youth picture. Another convention of the youth picture is that there are plenty of characters, all of whom are ‘typed’ in some way because there isn’t time to make them into ’rounded characters’. (Apart from the teacher, there are at least eight or nine important student characters.) Watching some critics grapple with this is amusing, but also frustrating.
The filmmakers obviously want to reach the 15-24 market and they have adopted a muscular and very American style. It’s in ‘Scope and features some fast cutting matched to a rock soundtrack as well as the usual array of computers and software that perform tasks at an astonishing speed in highly visual ways. If only students could design webpages and logos at this speed – but this is a genre movie.
I have two interests in the film. First, amongst all the Americanisation, what is distinctive about German popular culture, since we see it so rarely? I gleaned a couple of things. In the play with types it is important that one sympathetic character is a rather good-looking young Turk and another character is identified as an Ossi. I don’t have much of a problem with typing, but the rather cynical/dour young woman who represents the ideologically pure hippie dissenter was a mistake, I think. The main distinguishing feature in the school, apart from the wealth of many of the students and the quality of the school building, was the choice of water polo as the sport in which the ‘jocks’ display their macho prowess (the central teacher character is also the water polo coach). This is a welcome riposte to the American football of Hollywood teen movies (American ‘football’ is one of the few sports that leaves me completely unmoved). I always think of the famous water polo match between Hungary and the USSR in 1956 (recently the subject of a Joe Esterhazy-scripted movie) as being an indicator of a different sports outlook in Central Europe. The water polo is linked to another aspect of Die Welle, which is the location of the teacher’s home on a houseboat moored on a lake near the school. Summer, lakes and forests take me back to the German textbook we had at school for O Level. I’m sure we followed a German family through the Summer from school (do German schools start early in the morning in Summer?) to the holidays.
The second interesting aspect of the film is, of course, how it deals with fascism. Here the film is quite astute. It may be ‘simplistic’ and ‘naive’ as the critics make out, but the filmmakers have thought about a teen audience and how they might be engaged. There are aspects of fascism which are not just attractive, but seemingly morally pure – the possibility of inclusivity, the eradication of differences caused by wealth etc. The teacher uses these aspects to draw in students. One visual signifier of this is the uniform. The whole uniform scenario works very well – not least because it is so visual, but also, in a UK context, because the return of uniforms happened a long time ago and it will be interesting to see what UK teens think of the film in this respect. There are some great scenes and I really enjoyed the burning of Nike and Adidas sportswear in favour of the simple uniform the students adopt – an attack on German and US capitalism as part of a ‘new movement’. The revelation of the evils of fascism is much more effective when it can be seen to be seductive and reasonable as well. I also thought the film handled the conflicting emotions around romance and commitment to the cause very well.
I think the film does run out of steam in the third quarter and I felt the ending was a mistake in some ways, but overall, I think this will work well with its target audience. It certainly bears comparison with Hollywood and it’s good to see an entertainment film that tries to take on board ideas. I don’t think teen audiences will feel patronised by the film and even if they don’t like it, I’ll be interested to hear what they have to say.